- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

Federal agriculture officials yesterday seized a flock of Vermont sheep that may be infected with a version of "mad cow disease," the first time the government has taken farm animals suspected of having the brain-destroying disease or a related illness.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other researchers said the sheep, which will be destroyed, pose virtually no threat since their remnants will never enter the food chain.

The department removed 234 sheep from a Greensboro, Vt., farm after four of the animals tested positive for a form of mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The owners of the sheep say the tests were not conclusive and have asked for more extensive testing.

The sheep were part of a flock imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1996. Two years later, the department quarantined the flock after learning they likely had been given feed contaminated with disease-causing agents while in Europe.

Before the quarantine, about 50 sheep from the same flock were slaughtered, and their muscle meat was sold in a local butcher shop, according to the USDA. The department said the risk from those sheep was minimal because the disease-causing agents have been found only in brain and spinal tissue.

"We want to keep [the remaining sheep] from entering the food chain," said Dr. Linda Detwiler, a veterinarian for the department.

She added that there is no possibility the animals could suffer from foot-and-mouth disease, a sickness that has surfaced in European livestock but poses no threat to humans.

The Netherlands yesterday and today confirmed its first cases of the the illness, sometimes called hoof-and-mouth disease. The news killed hopes that the highly contagious livestock disease had not spread from Britain, where it originated, and a small corner of France.

Another researcher said the seized sheep would pose a serious risk to others only if they were rendered into food for humans or animals, the most common form of transmission of mad-cow disease, according to scientists.

"The overall risk is very small," said George M. Gray, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health who is preparing a report for the USDA on the risks of mad-cow disease.

The seizure occurred the same day British officials issued a report suggesting a cluster of deaths from the human form of mad cow disease were linked to butchering practices, suggesting the illness can be transmitted more easily than previously thought.

BSE causes a toxic plaque to form on the brain and make it spongelike. Researchers believe the disease may have originated when the remains of sheep suffering from another brain-destroying illness, scrapie, were fed to British cattle.

The USDA says four of the Vermont sheep seized yesterday showed signs of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a class of neurological diseases that includes both BSE and scrapie.

The disease spreads among cattle that are fed the ground remains of other, infected cattle, according to scientists. Researchers think people catch the human form of the disease, called new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by eating beef from infected cattle.

Federal researchers also are studying links between mad cow disease and chronic-wasting disease (CWD), a similar neurological disorder that has been found in deer and elk in the western United States. Unlike mad cow disease, there is no evidence CWD can spread to humans.

Yesterday's seizure marked the first time the government took farm animals suspected of having mad cow disease or a related illness. The owner of a flock of 21 sheep from the same family of sheep voluntarily turned them over to government officials last summer. Those sheep were destroyed.

Federal regulators in January quarantined a herd of Texas cattle suspected of having BSE, but the animals were deemed safe and released.

The seized sheep will be taken to a federal laboratory in Iowa so samples can be taken from their brains for study. The animals eventually will be given a lethal injection, Dr. Detwiler said.

The Agriculture Department is also expected to seize and destroy a flock of about 140 sheep owned by another Vermont farmer.

The sheep seized yesterday belong to philanthropist Houghton Freeman. They are unusual and valuable East Frisians that were being raised for their rich milk, which is used to make exotic cheeses.

The Vermont Health Department asked Mr. Freeman to stop selling the cheese in July.

His attorney, Thomas J. Amidon, had asked the government to delay the seizure until after a federal appeals court heard arguments next month.

Mr. Amidon called the seizure "a rush to judgment." He said his client estimates the sheep are worth between $5,000 and $7,000 apiece.

A USDA spokesman said Mr. Freeman will be compensated for the fair market value of the sheep, but said that figure has not yet been determined. The department offered the farmers as much as $2.4 million for their flocks last year, but they refused, deciding instead to continue a court fight to keep the government from seizing their flocks.

The farmers asked Vermont's congressional delegation Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords and independent Rep. Bernard Sanders for help, but they stood by the USDA.

"Too little is yet known about this disease, but we do know that it is deadly and that it has the potential to spread quickly, widely and insidiously if not handled early. We wish there was a sound alternative to the removal of these flocks, but there is not," the lawmakers said in a joint statement last week.

The human version of BSE, which like the animal version has a lengthy incubation period, has killed almost 100 persons in Britain since 1995, when it virtually wiped out the British beef industry.

Scrapie has been in the United States since at least 1947, but there are no known domestic cases of mad cow disease.

BSE has been transmitted to sheep experimentally through the feeding of small amounts of infected cattle brain. Testing to determine whether the Vermont sheep have scrapie or BSE would take two to three years to complete, the USDA says.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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