WARREN Linda Faillace keeps her emotions under control until she gets to
the point in her story when she told her children their animals face a
death sentence. The tears start to flow, and she is forced to break off her
account of how her small sheep farm 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 have come to this: Federal
officials want the Faillaces' flock of imported sheep destroyed because of
a possibility they may have been exposed to an untreatable, 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
attempt to start a new agricultural enterprise in a state where traditional
dairy farming is threatened. 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 1,000 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," said his lawyer,
Thomas Amidon. "The return is the (sheep) genetics would be something
helpful to Vermont hillside farms." It's as if these were the only two
farms in the early days of the dairy industry to own high-producing
Holstein cows. Others looking to get in on the ground floor of the emerging
dairy sheep business have offered 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 is believed to
have infected and killed in its human variant 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 United Kingdom 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 Mad Cow Disease in the
United Kingdom. Belgium and the Netherlands both had cases of BSE, and the
USDA says the Vermont sheep may have been exposed through feed.
But 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, who holds a doctorate in animal health and worked in the
early 1990s for a leading British researcher who advised the government on
BSE, is confident the science is on their side. "The chances of any sheep
in the world (getting BSE) are remote. The chances of these particular
sheep getting it well, you'd have a better chance of a meteor landing on
your front step tomorrow," he says.
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, the philanthropist's
lawyer. 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 involved 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 with
their three children, all of whom work on the farm. (Fifteen-year-old
Francis does the pasture management; Heather, 13, does the daily milking;
and Jackie, 12, is the cheesemaker along 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 over top
veterinarians 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 weighed in. After a meeting last week
with Health Commissioner Jan Carney, the Faillaces believe Carney also
wants the animals destroyed. Carney who is expected to rule on the issue
this week did not return several calls for comment. "We're not real
positive about what she's going to say," Linda says. "When she heard we
were making cheese, she was shocked. … She (Carney) said if there's any
risk, she has to protect the public."
Indeed, 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 "vacules," 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," she says.
Dr. Gerald Wells, one of the leading British experts on BSE, agrees with
the USDA's stance, after examining the slides of brain tissue taken from
the two flocks, Detwiler says. "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
vacules detected by lab tests in the brains of the culled sheep are not
evidence the animals have scrapie or BSE.
Vacules 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 lipids (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
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 Faillaces believe some of the pressure to destroy their sheep comes
from the beef industry, which does not want the United States to lose its
BSE-free status. 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 could be jeopardized as well from a BSE
"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'
The couple has heard from state officials that the government could offer
around $5,000 for ewes. But that figure would not begin to cover the lost
business or the potential sales of breed stock. The Faillaces say they'd
sell for $11.3 million. But 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."
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