updated 3/3/2004 3:36:59 PM ET 2004-03-03T20:36:59

The government has begun a criminal investigation into whether records may have been falsified in the nation’s first and only case of mad cow disease, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general said Wednesday.

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The investigation is moving in parallel with a non-criminal review of the department’s response to the mad cow case, as well as changes made in how it monitors and tests cattle for the disease, Phyllis Fong told a House subcommittee.

Fong said the criminal investigation focuses on whether the infected Holstein cow truly was a “downer” animal unable to stand or walk when it was slaughtered Dec. 9 in Moses Lake, Wash.

The department initially said the cow was a downer, and that was why it was tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Downers have a higher risk of the brain-wasting disease.

But men who saw the cow at Vern’s Moses Lake Meat Co. just before it was slaughtered recall it being on its feet. One of the plant’s owners, Tom Ellestad, said the cow got up after the inspecting veterinarian saw it lying down and classified it as a downer. Department officials conceded last month that the cow might have gotten back up.

The investigation is only in its first few weeks, with officials gathering documents and interviewing witnesses, Fong said. She would not talk about possible targets in the investigation nor specify who is being interviewed.

“We haven’t determined anything so far,” she said.

Ellestad could not immediately be reached Tuesday for comment, but his wife, Marla, said officials have been visiting the slaughterhouse constantly and asking questions since the mad cow case surfaced.

“There have been too many different people (and) they don’t tell me anything,” she said, adding that she has no knowledge of any criminal investigation or falsification of papers.

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