Uncle Sam Wants Ewe
Why the U.S. Government is holding two Vermont sheep farms hostage
Linda Faillace keeps her emotions under control until she gets to the point in her story when she had to tell her children their animals might have to be put to death. Then the tears start to flow, and she is forced to break off her account of how the family’s small sheep farm in Warren became the focus of the government’s concern over food safety. Six years of work, numerous trips to Europe, intensive research on animal health and genetics had come to this: Federal and state officials want the Faillaces’ flock of imported sheep destroyed because of a possibility they may have been exposed to an untreatable and always fatal brain disease that could spread to humans.
The Faillaces’ saga extends to the science of emerging diseases and the politics of international trade. But it’s also a story of one family’s fight against an intractable bureaucracy. Federal and state officials have refused to budge in recent weeks from their position that the sheep must be destroyed. The Faillaces have also dug in and have won support from neighbors and town officials. Warren selectmen last week urged the state to change its mind. But Vermont Health Commissioner Jan Carney continues to argue that the sheep should be killed.
The East Friesian sheep the family brought in from Belgium and the Netherlands make prodigious amounts of milk, which is then used to produce a variety of specialty cheeses. While an average U.S. sheep used for milking may give 100 pounds of milk a year, these tall, long-eared ewes can produce 1000 pounds annually.
Although the cheese is selling well, the real money was supposed to come from the sale of breeding stock. Because the USDA halted imports soon after the Faillaces bought their sheep in 1996, the Warren operation and another farm in Greensboro have the only U.S. flocks of East Friesian sheep. The Greensboro farm belongs to Houghton Freeman, a philanthropist whose Freeman Foundation has donated millions of dollars for education and land conservation efforts in Vermont.
Freeman and the Faillaces saw the East Friesian breed as having strong potential for Vermont agriculture. Freeman invested significant amounts of money in launching his sheep operation, which is run by a young couple. “In reality, there probably isn’t a return for him,” says his lawyer, Thomas Amidon. Prior to the controversy, farmers looking to get in on the ground floor of the emerging dairy sheep business were willing to pay up to $25,000 for a bred ewe, Faillace says.
The business plan is now on hold, while state and federal officials decide their next move. The animals were imported under a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were certified free of scrapie — a sheep brain disease that has been endemic in Europe and the United States for years — and were quarantined in both Europe and this country. But last year, federal agriculture officials told the Faillaces they wanted to buy and then destroy the 300 animals held on their farm and on the Freeman farm in Greensboro. Government specialists said that the sheep came from an area of Europe where bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) had been found and that they could potentially harbor the deadly disease. The sheep are not sick, and the cheese is safe to eat. But at the USDA’s request, the state Department of Agriculture quarantined both flocks in 1998.
BSE is more commonly known as “mad cow disease,” and its human variant is believed to have infected and killed 46 people in the United Kingdom. The disease — the word “spongiform” describes the holes it leaves in brains — is insidious and always fatal. Its victims become disoriented and then slip into dementia and death. The U.K. outbreak led to a ban on British beef sales and the slaughter of millions of animals there. BSE has not been found in U.S. cattle, according to the USDA. However, U.S. officials are concerned because laboratory experiments in which infected cow brains were injected into other species have shown that the disease can be transmitted from cows to sheep.
The disease may also have been spread by a common but little-known practice of feeding animal meal to herbivores. Until the practice was curbed, commercial feed mills bought meat and bone meal for use as a protein source in feed. Many researchers believe the BSE outbreak in the U.K. began when cattle were fed meal made from infected animals. Some also believe that meal made from sheep infected with scrapie — a disease related to BSE — jumped the species barrier and may have caused the mad cow disease. Belgium and the Netherlands both had cases of BSE, and the USDA says the Vermont sheep may have been exposed through feed.
The Faillaces argue there is no chance their sheep, or their forebears in Europe, were fed processed animal meal. They say their flock doesn’t have scrapie. They have documentation that feed mills in the area where the sheep originated did not use animal products. No sheep has contracted BSE, outside the laboratory, they note. And tests on their sheep for a telltale protein that indicates the presence of BSE have all turned up negative.
Larry Faillace holds a doctorate in animal health and worked in the early 1990s for a leading British researcher who advised the government on BSE. He is confident the science is on their side. “The chances of any sheep in the world [getting BSE] are remote,” he says. “The chances of these particular sheep getting it — well, you’d have a better chance of a meteor landing on your front step tomorrow.”
Freeman is also incredulous that the USDA wants the animals killed, after first helping to bring the animals into the country. “My client has said, ‘Show us the evidence.’ There isn’t any,” says Amidon, speaking for the philanthropist.
But USDA officials have insisted for over a year that the most prudent course is for both flocks to be slaughtered. Nothing less than the national interest is at stake, according to Alfonso Torres, deputy USDA administrator.
“The high stakes ... mandate very conservative measures if there is a possibility of the sheep being infected with the BSE agent. We are conscious that these actions require difficult choices on your part,” Torres told the Faillaces in a letter this spring. “However, this is a case in which the welfare of our nation must be placed above any other consideration.”
For a long time Linda and her husband had not discussed the issue of their sheep’s slaughter with their three children, all of whom work on the farm — 15-year-old Francis does the pasture management; Heather, 13, does the daily milking; and Jackie, 12, makes cheese with her father. But after a meeting with the USDA last October, the parents broke the news that the animals might have to be killed.
“We sat down with our children and explained to them what was going on,” Linda says, pausing to control her tears. “At that point, what we found out is that our children are as obstinate as we are. They said, ‘No way, there’s nothing wrong with our sheep.’”
The Faillaces mustered scientific evidence. They flew top veterinarians in from Europe to meet with the USDA and an official from the National Institutes of Health. Their experts insisted the sheep were disease-free and safe. But USDA officials did not back down. Now the Vermont Department of Health, which only recently learned of the problem from state agriculture officials, has sided with the feds.
“Because of the uncertainties involved in this unique Vermont situation, we all agree that getting these sheep out of Vermont to USDA is the priority; however, no recall of the milk-cheese products is indicated,” Jan Carney says. “These recommendations and proposed actions are based on prudent public health practice.”
If Larry and Linda Faillace have a ready rebuttal for every concern raised by the USDA, government officials also have a compelling comeback. Dr. Linda Detwiler, a leading BSE specialist and a veterinarian with the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, says the public would be justifiably outraged if BSE did spread to the United States and the government had not done everything possible to stop it. Detwiler also notes there is some sign — although the Faillaces dispute the significance — that the brains of sheep culled from both farms have “vacuoles,” small holes that could possibly indicate a spongiform disease.
“The overriding issue is human health,” Detwiler says. “If you protect animals, then you protect humans. If we ignore [the disease potential] and something happened, somebody could come back and say, ‘Did you know they could have been exposed?’ We’d have to say yes. And if they ask, ‘Was there any indication in the brains of the animals [that they carried the disease]?’ We’d have to say, ‘Possibly, yes.’... We don’t know all the answers, but I think we know enough to be conservative.”
Detwiler acknowledges that there is nothing “overtly” wrong with the Vermont sheep. She says the issue “is exposure, or potential exposure.” Neither the Faillaces nor the farmers who sold them the animals can be absolutely sure that the feed in Europe did not contain meat or bone meal, according to Detwiler. Belgium’s government has told the USDA that feed mills cannot be ruled out as a source of the disease in Belgian cattle. And feed mills often changed their mixes depending on price and availability, she says.
“A lot of time, the rations were developed by least-cost calculations, so on any given day, there might be a substitute [such as meat or bone meal] for a protein source,” Detwiler says.
Dr. Gerald Wells, one of the leading British experts on BSE, agreed with the USDA’s stance after examining the slides of brain tissue taken from the two flocks, Detwiler adds. “He said he couldn’t say what it was. But he couldn’t rule out [some form of transmissible encephalopathy]. Given the background of the sheep, he would support the action taken by the state and USDA.”
Larry Faillace says the animals in Vermont were born after a ban on animal meal went into effect in Europe, and he and his wife say that the vacuoles detected by lab tests in the brains of the culled sheep are not evidence the animals have scrapie or BSE.
Vacuoles in brain tissue can be caused by other illness or the way the slides for the microscope are prepared, they say. The alcohol used on the sample can dissolve fat molecules in the tissue, giving the appearance that the tissue has small holes. They also say that researchers did not detect several other signs of transmissible brain disease, including the key protein associated with BSE.
Dr. Bernard Carton, a Belgian veterinarian who works with the Faillaces, also says the lab work does not show their sheep have a brain disease. “I have followed all the details of this case. I do not understand why your government is acting like it is,” he says. “To me, it has nothing to do with science, it just has to do with politics.”
The United States — which has already faced a European ban on its beef over hormones in the meat — wants desperately to keep its BSE-free status, Carton notes. But if the U.S. government destroys the Vermont sheep, it could have an impact on international trade, since dairy products from the same sheep breed are imported from Europe. If the sheep are deemed unsafe, what would happen to those cheese imports if the public believed the animals were at risk to get BSE, he asks. “I wonder what will happen with my [Agriculture] ministry if they kill these animals,” Carton says. “Up until now, it’s been very quiet, but what happens with cheese from Europe? This could be the beginning of a big war.”
While the USDA has moved aggressively to control BSE in sheep, government officials have allowed several Vermont farmers to import elk from Western states, where there is a similar brain disease infecting wild herds. The Faillaces feel there is a double standard at work. Elk are not tested, nor does the USDA or the state ban their import from infected states. “I can understand wanting to take a conservative approach. But if [they] were doing their utmost, testing elk, testing [other] sheep, then I could understand this. But to select us, to say these sheep are under more suspicion than any in the world, seems ridiculous,” says Linda.
Detwiler refers questions on the elk issue to the state Agriculture Department. Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves says he is aware that elk in other parts of the country have the brain disease, but that no action has been taken in Vermont. “It’s on the radar screen. We haven’t done anything about that yet,” he says.
Graves says he supports the USDA’s position. “We’ve never had BSE in this country and we can’t afford to take the risk.”
The Faillaces believe some of the pressure to destroy their sheep comes from the beef industry, which does not want the U.S. to lose its BSE-free status.
Dr. Thomas Pringle, an Oregon biochemist and an expert in the protein structures of transmissible spongiform diseases, says the Faillaces are pawns in a larger effort to protect the American beef industry. Pringle points out that officials are far less aggressive in preventing other potential exposure routes, such as infection of the state’s deer herd by elk afflicted with chronic wasting disease — the elk variant of BSE.
“Vermont almost certainly has imported CWD, given the prodigious rates of infection at some of the exporting game farms,” Pringle says. “The Faillaces are being sacrificed to protect beef exports.”
But Detwiler, the USDA vet, says the issue goes beyond the beef industry. Many pharmaceutical products are made from cattle and other animal products. That industry also could be jeopardized from a BSE outbreak. “It’s the whole country, definitely not just the beef industry solely, that is interested in that [BSE-free] status,” she says. “The overriding issue is human health.”
By eliminating the Vermont flocks, the USDA “can pre-empt having to undertake any kind of big national [eradication] effort,” Detwiler says. The USDA has offered to pay market price for the Faillaces’ animals. The couple has heard from state officials that the government could offer around $5000 per ewe. But that figure would not begin to cover the lost business — or the potential sales of breeding stock. The Faillaces say they’d sell for $11.3 million.
Still, they don’t want to get rid of their animals. “We’d like the science to come out and the truth to come out ... There’s nothing wrong with our sheep,” Larry says. “Let’s figure out a way of solving this without killing them all.”