MABTON, Yakima County — 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.
Wavrin learned that a single Holstein from his dairy was the first in the U.S. to test positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, a cattle brain-wasting disease that had caused human illness and death, economic catastrophes and the slaughter of millions of cattle overseas.
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Here, the furor slammed the door on billions of dollars in exports and scared a lot of beef eaters.
“Holy crap,” Wavrin recalled saying to himself. “We will not survive this.”
But he did. Most everybody did.
In hindsight, the discovery at Wavrin’s dairy led to be only a brief scare, 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.
In the end, regulators relied on the odds that a large-scale disaster would be extremely unlikely. Safeguards have been tightened somewhat 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 can be contracted through feed that includes contaminated brain and spinal-cord tissue from infected cattle, a supplement banned in 1997. Since 2003, the U.S. has seen three other cases, all in domestic cows that, unlike Wavrin’s Canadian-born Holstein, investigators suspect had an 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.
On Dec. 23, 2003, 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, meat 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. She mispronounced Mabton, the Yakima County community of 1,900 people, as “MAYB-ton.”
Nations halted 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 any last-minute Christmas shopping plans to field nonstop calls.
Wavrin’s Holstein became “the cow that stole Christmas.”
Food-safety authorities 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, while 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 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.