MABTON — A walking tour of Bill Wavrin’s dairy takes few steps.
His house and office sit on a hill above the milking parlor, birthing pen and calf sheds. Beyond, his cows sprawl in groups of 15 or 20 as the topography recedes into the hazy distance. Almost every animal in the herd of 4,000 can be seen from the Sunny Dene Ranch driveway.
But 10 years ago Monday, it took just one cow to send shock waves through the cattle industry of the United States, home to some 100 million cattle, slam the door on billions of dollars in exports and scare a lot of beef eaters.
That’s when Wavrin learned that a single Holstein from his dairy was the first in the United States to test positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow, the terrorizing cattle brain-wasting disease that had caused illness and death, economic catastrophes and the slaughter of millions of cattle overseas.
“Holy crap,” Wavrin recalled saying to himself. “We will not survive this.”
But he did. Most everybody did.
In hindsight, Wavrin’s cow appears in U.S. history as a brief scare, certainly not the disaster the disease caused in the late 1980s in the United Kingdom, where hundreds of people fell ill and many died after eating contaminated meat. Over the years, 4.5 million cattle were slaughtered to contain the spread.
In America, government officials and consumer advocates agree the nation’s food safety system functioned as expected thanks largely to precautions taken since the late 1990s to keep the disease-causing prion, a misshapen protein in the infected animal’s central nervous system, out of cattle feed and hence the beef supply.
But in the end, regulators relied on the odds that a large-scale disaster would be extremely unlikely. Safeguards have tightened some since then, but the cattle industry has successfully resisted a national identification system and testing of all cattle, some of the measures used by other nations today. Critics say not enough has changed.
“They’re baby steps and they’re not enough,” said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist of the watchdog organization Consumers Union.
Today we play the same odds and the science about the disease is still evolving.
Veterinarians mostly suspect the disease occurs as a spontaneous birth defect or is contracted through feed that includes the contaminated brains and spinal cords of other cattle, a supplement banned in 1997. Since 2003, the United States has seen three other cases, all domestic cows that, unlike Wavrin’s Canadian born Holstein, investigators suspect had the atypical strain that may have come from a birth defect rather than contaminated feed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The human version of mad cow is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a grim illness that spongifies the brain and is invariably fatal.
England’s problems happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Outbreaks followed in Japan in 2001 and Canada in May 2003.
The following Dec. 23, U.S. officials received preliminary positive test results from the Ames, Iowa, National Veterinary Services Laboratories for samples of meat taken from a deboning facility in Centralia that was traced to Wavrin’s farm. Samples were then flown by military aircraft to England for confirmation testing.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called a news conference in Washington, D.C., to announce the nation’s first case of mad cow, mispronouncing the unfortunate community of 1,900 as MAYB-ton.
Nations halted their beef imports from the United States. Reporters from all over the globe swarmed the town about 40 miles southeast of Yakima. Federal investigators marched animals by the hundred to slaughter. Executives of trade associations for dairy and cattle owners canceled their last minute Christmas shopping plans to field non-stop calls.
Wavrin’s Holstein became “the cow that stole Christmas.”
Food safety authorities also recalled about 10,000 pounds of beef from the diseased cow and 19 others slaughtered along with it.
They traced the meat from grocery store shelves back to two processing plants in Portland, the deboning facility in Centralia and the slaughterhouse at Vern’s Moses Lake Meats, where the sick cow arrived for slaughter reportedly having difficulty walking.
A cow’s inability to stand or walk, though a symptom of BSE, isn’t proof of the disease. Wavrin, a veterinarian, had noticed the cow’s problems at his dairy but chalked it up to a difficult birth. She wasn’t recovering so he sent her to slaughter.
Federal sleuths confirmed an Alberta, Canada, dairy as the birthplace of the cow and dispatched employees throughout the Northwest to track cows imported in the same shipment.
In a country that slaughters more than 30 million head a year, they searched for 81 cows, focusing on the 25 they determined likely ate the same contaminated feed as the diseased Holstein.
It was “daunting, and even under the best of circumstances, a difficult task,” said Ron DeHaven, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinarian who led the investigation.
For seven weeks they searched, quarantining farms in Moxee, Mattawa, Sunnyside, Boardman, Ore., and Burley, Idaho, “depopulating” a total of 704 cows. They found 14 of the 25 cohorts, the term for the cows that shared the same contaminated feed.
But that’s as a far as they got. Because of imperfect records, they never found the 11 other cohort animals and quit trying, closing the investigation on Feb. 9, 2004.
DeHaven, who became the face of the investigation with near daily updates from Washington, D.C., said they were convinced by the odds that the meat posed no threat to people because the deadly prions reside in central nervous system tissue, which is stripped away from muscle cuts in the deboning process. Only one in 10 million cattle are sickened by BSE, he said.
“While we were clearly very concerned . we also understood the risk was very small,” he said.
DeHaven stands by every decision in the process except the recall, which occurred after people in eight states and Guam had already purchased the meat in the form of hamburger. The recall sent a mixed message, he said. The government told the public the beef that made it to grocery counters was safe but nevertheless removed any it could find from the market.
“It’s not justified,” he said in hindsight.
Hansen called that notion “outrageous.”
“It was absolutely required,” he said.
Within a week of the finding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned all “downer” cows — those who struggle to walk — from processing for food.
Authorities also tightened restrictions on feed, forbidding the brains and spinal cords of dead cattle from any kind of animal feed, the step they had taken with cattle feed in 1997.
Some farmers still legally feed certain animal byproducts to their young live cattle to boost protein. Blood, processed into a granular meal, is common.
And last year, the federal government began requiring that all cattle over 18 months have a history recorded either on paper or an electronic device before crossing state lines. But that requirement falls far short of the national, cradle-to-grave database many regulators, consumer groups and legislators originally called for.
Today, it’s still easier to trace the history of a stolen car than a sick cow, DeHaven said.
“It would take days at best, more likely, weeks and it wouldn’t be 100 percent, far from 100 percent,” DeHaven said.
America’s system leaves the nation’s herds exposed to an outbreak, not necessarily from BSE, but contagious animal diseases, such as foot and mouth, that could wipe out the industry, DeHaven said. “Woefully inadequate,” he called the current system.
Cattle industry officials successfully pushed back against the national identification system, citing concerns about privacy, property rights, the burden of implementation and the effect on commerce.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said the government wanted “everything under the sun.”
Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, said the effort failed because producers objected to the federal government trying to impose a one-size-fits-all system. Currently, cattle have a variety of identifying paperwork, such as vaccination reports, simple receipts, ear tags or brands.
Some ranchers felt, “We don’t want the federal government to have a website to know how many beef cattle we have on the range in the Okanogan,” Gordon said.
But Hansen, the Consumers Union scientist, complained that officials can’t even determine how old an animal is with certainty.
“We functionally don’t have a tracking system,” he said. Countries with quality identification systems include much of Europe, where cattle have documents akin to passports, and Japan, where shoppers can scan a bar code to find the origin of their food products.
Testing for the disease, too, has returned to pre-BSE levels, at about 40,000 animals per year. In 2005, the nation tested 10 times that many cattle.
Some nations test every single animal over a certain age at the time of slaughter. BSE prions only show up in older animals. In America, that would cost about $1 billion per year.
Washington is among states trying to improve the cattle tracking system.
This year, the Legislature spent $881,000 to upgrade the state Department of Agriculture’s computers to crunch data from the variety of existing animal certificates, receipts, licenses, ear tags and vaccination reports, hoping to amass enough information to back-trace the history of any cattle with a disease.
They hope to unveil the tracking system by June 2015, said Lynn Briscoe, policy adviser for the state Agriculture Department.
The state’s proposed changes also call for closing a loophole that exempts cattle sold in bunches of 15 or fewer from brand inspections.
Both the Dairy Federation and the Washington Cattlemen support the proposed changes as reasonable food safety improvements.
Wavrin did, indeed, survive the mad cow scare.
The whole adventure left him little worse for wear financially. He and the rest of the farmers involved were compensated for the value of the animals destroyed.
“Other than the gray lines on my head, I don’t think you could see evidence of this event,” he said.
Though unpleasant, he believes the investigation, quarantines and slaughter were necessary.
“I don’t think the hullaballoo was overdone, because we had to know,” he said.
Wavrin did not grow up farming. His family owned a fishing lodge on a lake in northern Minnesota and he took a fancy to animal medicine as a boy. His family bought the Mabton dairy in 1997 and he owns it with his brother, Sid.
Bill Wavrin lauded the skills of the government officials who probed his farm. He has nice words for the media, which he said reported the science clearly and without sensationalism. And he praises the American public for reacting to facts, not emotion.
“The country could have panicked,” he said.
Since mad cow, he has upgraded his records system. He and his crews read ear tag information with a 2-foot wand attached to handheld scanner the size of a walkie-talkie. The device cost him about $5,000.
The new tool makes managing his herd more convenient and efficient, but he admits it would have fit nicely with the centralized tracking system federal officials gave up on but he supported.
“I’m a veterinarian, and I like the idea of being able to back trace,” he said.
To Wavrin, the over-arching lesson is one of communication between farmer and customer.
He suspects most producers have lost touch with consumers and done too little to counter what he calls an “irrational fear of commercial agriculture.”
He has participated in educational videos and had his face on billboards, inviting people to show more curiosity about where their food comes from.
“Come to a farm,” he said.