First U.S. case of mad cow disease is reported in a Mabton dairy cow on December 23, 2003.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/04/2004
  • Essay 5650

On December 23, 2003, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announces that a Holstein cow from a dairy herd in Mabton, a small farming town in southeast Yakima County, has tested positive for mad cow disease. It is the first time the invariably fatal degenerative brain disease, which can spread to humans who eat infected cow parts, is detected in the United States. The discovery heightens concern about food safety and has immediate impacts on the cattle industry and on Mabton.

Mabton is a town of about 2,000 residents in the Yakima valley some 33 miles southeast of the city of Yakima. Agriculture is the main industry in the area, as it has been from the time the town was first settled in the late 1800s.

The Holstein cow that tested positive for mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was part of a 4,000-cow dairy herd at the Sunny Dene Ranch located about a mile south of Mabton's Main Street. The cow was slaughtered at Vern's Moses Lake Meats on December 9, 2003, after becoming paralyzed apparently while giving birth.

A Downer Cow

Reportedly because it was a "downer cow" -- unable to walk -- a sample was sent to the Iowa laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for BSE testing. (However, the report that the cow was a downer was subsequently disputed.) The brain, spinal cord, and intestine, considered the highest risk parts for transmitting the disease, were removed and sent to a rendering plant that produces animal feed and industrial products, but not items for human consumption. The animal's meat was processed and distributed to food stores in at least eight states before the BSE tests were conducted, a practice that conformed to federal regulations.

Preliminary tests at the Iowa laboratory on December 22, 2003, indicated that the sample from the Mabton cow was positive for BSE. Further tests the next day were also positive, prompting USDA Secretary Venneman's announcement. Christmas day tests at the BSE world reference laboratory in England confirmed the diagnosis.

Origins of Mad Cow Disease

Mad cow disease first became known in 1986, when British scientists identified BSE as a new disease in cattle. The disease is caused by abnormal cellular proteins, called prions, and is spread when animals consume feed made from an infected animal. The practice of making cattle feed from cattle was widespread and is believed to be responsible for the rapid spread of BSE through the British industry, ultimately requiring millions of cattle to be destroyed. The use of rendered cattle in cattle feed has since been officially banned in many countries, including the United States.

Although authorities initially discounted the possibility, by the 1990s it was found that BSE could spread to humans who eat animal parts containing the infectious prions. Like mad cow disease, the human form of the illness, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is an inevitably fatal brain-destroying disorder.

Quarantines and Import Bans

The discovery of the deadly disease in the United States triggered a furor. The USDA immediately quarantined the 4,000-cow herd at Mabton's Sunny Dene Ranch and set out to trace both the infected Holstein's offspring and its origin. A herd in Sunnyside, a few miles north of Mabton across the Yakima River, was quarantined when the Holstein's most recent calf was traced there. Within days, it was determined that the Holstein had been imported in 2001 with about 70 other cows from Alberta, Canada. In May 2003, one BSE-infected cow had been reported in Alberta.

Many countries banned the import of U.S. beef. Consumer and health advocates questioned why meat from the cow was allowed to enter the food supply before the BSE test was conducted and called for major changes in the beef processing industry. USDA officials, along with Washington Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950), Mabton Mayor David Conradt, and beef industry officials all insisted the beef supply remained safe.

New Regulations

However, USDA announced new regulations intended to reduce the risk of spreading BSE to people. These included banning "downer cows" from the human food supply, a move that even some in the cattle industry saw as long overdue. USDA also banned more high risk cattle parts from the human food supply, required that cattle being tested for BSE can no longer be marked "inspected and passed" until a negative test is confirmed, and prohibited some killing and processing practices that critics say increase the risk of spreading BSE prions to supposedly safe meat portions.

While officials said that beef from the BSE-infected Holstein posed little health risk, suppliers voluntarily recalled 10,000 pounds of meat from the infected cow and the 19 others slaughtered at Vern's Meats on the same day, although by then some of that meat had already been consumed.

In the month following the BSE discovery, USDA officials completed a "selective depopulation" of the Mabton herd, killing and testing 129 animals. More than 100 other animals from Washington and Idaho herds to which some of the Canadian animals associated with the infected Holstein were traced were also "depopulated" and tested. None of the tests were reported positive. All 449 bull calves in the Sunnyside herd that included the Holstein's calf were also euthanized

Mabton in the Media

Although the ranchers were compensated for the destroyed cattle, the fallout from the mad cow discovery hit Mabton hard. Unaccustomed to any media notice, the town found itself inextricably linked in national and international news stories with the mysterious and frightening disease. The news came as dairy and beef ranchers in the area were already struggling. Milk prices had been low for several years. Consolidation in the industry, as fewer companies processed more cattle, made for bad markets and forced people, including some whose families had farmed for generations, out of the business.

While the beef industry in Mabton and nationwide braced for reduced consumption and at least temporary loss of export markets (Alberta officials estimated that the mad cow case there cost the province up to $1 billion Canadian), Mabton farmers noted that the impact extended beyond cattle ranches. Hay and grain farmers depend on the cattle industry and in turn support seed companies.

Mabton, however, did not give up. Several weeks after Veneman's announcement, Mabton held a free barbecue sponsored by a Yakima radio station that featured all-you-can-eat beef and T-shirts reading, "My cows attend anger management."


Chris McGann, "Fear, Concern in Mabton," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 25, 2003, website accessed January 30, 2004 (; Phuong Cat Le, "Suspect Cow's History Traced; Source of Infection Still Mystery," Ibid.; Lewis Kamb, "Diseased Cow's Calf Among Herd of 449 to Be Killed," January 6, 2004, Ibid.; Mike Lewis, "Mabton Residents Try to Beef Up Spirits," January 15, 2004, Ibid.; Ira Dreyfuss, "U.S. Works to Ease Mad-Cow Trade Fears," January 27, 2004, Ibid.; Sandi Doughton, "Mad Cow Disease Suspected in Washington State," December 23, 2003, The Seattle Times, website accessed February 3, 2004 (; "The Worldwide Spread of 'Mad-Cow Disease,'' December 24, 2003, Ibid.; Doughton, "Groups Urge Expanded Mad-Cow Protections," January 16, 2004, Ibid.; United States Department of Agriculture, "BSE Chronology," website accessed February 4, 2004 (; "USDA BSE Update Statement," Ibid.

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