On Dec. 23, as she told the nation of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman emphasized one fact: the infected animal was already a high-risk suspect.
“The animal tested was a downer cow, or nonambulatory at the time of slaughter,” Veneman said, adding that it “was identified as part of USDA’s targeted surveillance program.”
But the cattle hand who actually killed the cow in question disputes Veneman’s assessment. David Louthan says the aging Holstein was a “a perfectly good walking cow,” not a downer. That the cow was even tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy was “just a fluke,” he says.
Whether the cow could stand on its own is significant because the USDA based its mad cow surveillance program on testing only downers. In response to the discovery in December of the infected cow in Washington state, the department announced new beef safety rules to specifically ban downed cattle from human consumption. Louthan's assertion brings into question whether the policy of testing only downed animals adequately safeguarded the food supply.
The ailing cow was slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern’s Moses Lake Meats, in Moses Lake, Wash., two weeks before Veneman announced the apparent positive test. On that day, Louthan operated the bolt gun that causes cows’ brain death in one swift stroke. He killed all the cows delivered that day.
“A nonmedical professional is voicing a position and you want USDA to defend itself to prove that what this random citizen is saying is untrue,” said spokesman Steven Cohen of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which manages the federal inspection program. “The determination by a veterinarian is the determination that is valid, and veterinarians are doing this every single day at slaughter plants across America. They’re making these diagnoses. They’re trained to.”
The USDA declined a request to interview the veterinarian that examined the infected cow. Instead it provided MSNBC with a copy of the Dec. 9 inspection report on that load of cattle, which showed the cow as “sternal,” or lying on its stomach, but alert. USDA spokesman Daniel Puzo said the agency based its conclusions about the cow's downer status on the report and on its forensic investigation.
Yet others share Louthan’s belief. Vern’s manager Tom Ellestad was quoted in several newspapers saying the cow in question was able to walk off the trailer. He did not respond to inquiries from MSNBC. A third worker at Vern’s that day told the Oregonian newspaper last month the cow was “more than capable of walking off.” The Government Accountability Project, which represents whistleblowers, investigated Louthan’s claims and found enough evidence to conclude “that cow was a walker.”
Trailer full of downers
A self-described “cow killer” who speaks with a bold twang, Louthan has spent the past weeks tangling with the USDA and vocally questioning the official portrayal of mad cow risks as mostly limited to downers, which account for perhaps 200,000 of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the United States. After growing up with cows on his grandmother’s spread in Texas, driving cattle trucks since 1980 and working at Vern’s for over four years, a job he says he loved, Louthan is hardly squeamish about the stark realities of cattle processing.
The cow in question arrived later in the day, Louthan said in an interview with MSNBC; it was the third cow off the second trailer they were processing and perhaps the 15th he had seen that Tuesday. (USDA officials dispute whether it is the same cow.) Of the previous two in that trailer, one was a downer and the other “wasn’t too good at walking,” he said.
The next cow, though, was standing, alert and in good shape compared to the remaining animals, which were all downers, Louthan recalled. Trying to move the cow to the loading ramp, the driver that brought the animals poked it with a cattle prod. Louthan, the only other one wrangling the cattle, was impatient and wanted to finish the day’s work.
“She’s getting kind of squirrelly. I see her eyes starting to roll around. She’s looking for someplace to go,” he said. “So I asked the vet, ‘Have you seen her, doc?’ And he says, ‘I guess I seen her,’ something to that effect. I had the knocking gun in my hand already. I stepped up and I blasted that cow. She fell right there on the back of that trailer.”
While able-footed cows were herded up the slaughter chute at Vern’s, Louthan said, downers were shot in the trailer with a bolt gun and then hoisted into killing pens. Since last October, in accord with a federal testing plan, the central Washington facility pulled brain samples from all downed cows to submit for testing. Cattle that could walk received visual inspection after slaughter, which cannot detect the microscopic proteins that cause mad cow disease, and were not tested.
If the cow had walked up the slaughter chute, it would not have been tested for BSE. Because it was shot in the trailer, Louthan removed a brain sample for testing.
“If I’d took the time to run her around to the pens, we’d have never known that cow had mad cow, she’d have gone right in,” Louthan said.
By contrast, USDA officials maintain the cow, which was imported from an Alberta, Canada ranch in 2001, had been ill since it was injured during the birth of a calf during its time at the Sunny Dene Ranch, in Mabton, Wash., about 60 miles from Moses Lake.
“That’s why it was sent to slaughter,” said Cohen. “That’s where the injury occurred, and the post-slaughter inspection verified that.”
The copy of the inspection report indicates the cow in question, number M-2229095, had internal bleeding in its pelvic canal and an enlarged uterus, signs of internal damage during calf birth. Officials have said a previous exam at Sunny Dene, owned by veterinarian Bill Wavrin, uncovered the cow’s injuries, which caused it to have trouble walking. It is not clear if the injuries were severe enough make the cow a downer.
The report also shows the infected cow was the only animal in the trailer not to get a rectal temperature reading from the veterinarian, an omission Louthan calls a “smoking gun” and one the USDA dismisses.
Temperatures help assess a downer cow’s health: too high and it may have an infection and fever, too low and it may be moribund. The report shows another animal in the same batch that day appeared “unresponsive” and was condemned; its temperature was 94 degrees F. A healthy cow would register just over 100 degrees F.
Cohen noted temperature readings are “not a requirement,” and said the cow was positioned up against a wall, making it hard for the veterinarian to reach its posterior. Temperatures were taken on the others because “they probably showed other signs” of illness, he said, but the infected cow didn’t get a reading because “it looked to him that the animal was alert.”
However, former USDA veterinarian Lester Friedlander, who trained other vets and inspected thousands of downers, said temperature readings are a standard practice for downed cows. “That’s automatic,” Friedlander said.
Louthan said the cow, after he shot it, fell where it had been standing: halfway between the trailer walls, its head hanging off the end. He said he “never, ever” saw a downer taken for processing without a temperature reading, even if it had to be pulled away from a wall with a chain.
“There ain’t no reason in the world why you can’t stick a thermometer into a downed cow’s butt,” Louthan said.
At the time he killed the cow, Louthan said, the USDA veterinarian and a temporary inspector were standing by the trailer door.
Difficult to define
Amid the disagreement, what emerges is the difficulty in defining a downer. Under the USDA’s current rules barring downed cattle, which have not yet been formalized as regulations, farmers are barred from sending nonambulatory animals to slaughter. But cows can be injured during transport, or may be lying down, appearing to be downers even if they are later able to walk. As such, Cohen said, the determination remains with the veterinarian, though the slaughterhouse may alert the on-site USDA officials if a cow’s status appears to change. “But that wasn’t the case with this animal,” he said.
The USDA’s new mad cow surveillance program is still under development. Downers are prohibited from the human food supply, but may be checked at rendering plants. (Protein from downed cattle can still be used in feed given to some other animals.) Federal officials plan to test about 40,000 cows this year for BSE under the new system, which could also eventually include some testing on farms, according to spokesman Jim Rogers of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Louthan, who continues to live across the street from Vern’s, said he was laid off Jan. 5, a day after he sent about 200 e-mails to inspectors and other USDA employees. “Are you just going to sit there with your hands in your pockets while Ann Veneman lies through her teeth to the world?” he asked. He demanded all cattle for human consumption get BSE testing.
Shortly after, he claims, USDA agents began sitting in their cars outside his house -- including one armed agent who asked Louthan to get in his car for a conversation. Hesitant at first, Louthan relented. “He asks me, ‘What do you want?’” Louthan recalled.
The USDA inspector general’s office confirmed the conversation with Louthan, but asserted it was Louthan who asked to speak in the car rather than his house. Otherwise, officials would not characterize the conversation, saying it was “an ongoing matter.”
However, said spokesman Austin Chadwick, “There was no attempt to intimidate, harass or argue with him.”
As for his desire to test all cattle, U.S. authorities insist it would be overkill and an international panel that reported to Veneman this week instead recommended random testing of all cattle over 30 months old. The panel also said it was probable more U.S. cases of BSE would be found.
The panel was convened as U.S. officials struggle to convince more than 30 countries to lift beef bans placed after Dec. 23. Japan, the first of those to enact a ban, has a universal testing policy.
'Bloody, sloppy, splattery mess'
Since his dismissal, Louthan has been ever more vocal in his disgust with the USDA, juggling dozens of e-mails and calls. He testified this week before Washington state lawmakers. Despite his apparent gadfly role, he remains proud of his slaughtering skills. “You put everybody in that plant together, I can outrun all of them,” he said.
Louthan also worries about his time spent in the slaughterhouse with the infected cow, and the potential for cross-contamination.
“Killing cows is a bloody, sloppy, splattery mess. It gets on you. It gets in you. It gets in your eyes, it gets in your mouth. Everybody that ever killed cows has definitely had a mouthful of dead cow they had to spit out,” he said. “It’s still fun but I can’t go in there and get that poisoned cow on me anymore.”
Current research indicates BSE infection requires the infected tissue to be eaten, according to Richard Race, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health Rocky Mountain Laboratories, though a slaughter tool, like a saw, could spread the infectious tissue onto otherwise healthy meat.
“Could it transfer some of that material? Sure, but in order to infect somebody, that material would probably have to be consumed,” Race said.
To limit the spread of high-risk tissue, the USDA has finalized a ban on air-injecting stun guns, which blast compressed air through a bolt into a cow’s brain, turning it to mush. But Louthan worries stun guns can still force bits of brain, considered a specified risk material (SRM) for its ability to transmit mad cow disease, into the carcass.
The USDA panel also recommended this week that “slaughter and carcass dressing procedures … be brought into line with international standards.”
Louthan continues to worry about contamination, especially due to another of his jobs at Vern’s -– operating the 400-pound band saw to create six- or eight-foot incisions down a cow’s spine and split it in half. Those saws come in close contact with the spinal cord and other nervous system tissue considered to be SRMs. “Nobody washes a saw unless they hit a bad beef or a condemned beef,” he said. “That saw’s not going to get washed until the end of the day. So that saw is contaminated.”
MSNBC's Joe Myxter contributed to this report.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints