DALLAS – Researchers hunting the herd linked to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease found most of the animals were slaughtered – and possibly in the human food supply – even before the government probe began.

The federal and state governments closed an investigation into the infected cow, which was raised at an unidentified Texas ranch, at the end of August.

But the Dallas Morning News obtained details about the search for the 413 cows and calves on Tuesday under a Texas Open Records request. About 350 of them, or roughly 85 percent, were sent for slaughter.

The reports, compiled for the Texas Animal Health Commission by a government employee, demonstrate how problematic it was to track the herd mates and progeny of the diseased cow.

The investigators’ searches for feed records, as well as “animals of interest” went back years. Many records were no longer available. The state wound up relying on its own data taken in the county between 1990 and 1994 to get a snapshot of the herd.

“If it were not for our brucellosis information and database, we would have had extraordinary difficulty in conducting this investigation,” said Dr. Max Coats, deputy director for animal health programs at the Texas Animal Health Commission.

Other problems also cropped up during the investigation. The cattle from the farm often arrived at markets without any identification tags and were subsequently re-tagged. Also, various family members other than the primary owners regularly sold cows from the farm, making them difficult to trace.

“We would have liked for the record keeping to have been better,” said Coats. “Some producers have flawless records. Others know they had 14 cows last year and they don’t know whose they were.”

Because the record keeping and identification process at the affected farm was lacking, inspectors had to trace 213 calves in their hunt to find two that were recently born to the diseased cow. They never were able to specifically identify the two calves, but did say that 208 of those investigated went into feed and slaughter channels, entering the food supply. Another four likely did. One calf was untraceable.

“If they’re fairly confident that the group they identified as the progeny was complete and if nearly all of them were slaughtered, chances are the progeny was eaten by a human being,” said Tom McGarity, a professor of food safety law at the University of Texas Law School and president of the Center for Progressive Regulation.

Those details give him pause, he said. While mad cow is not necessarily transmitted to offspring, it is “quite possible that a mad cow got in the food supply.”

Mad cow disease is associated with a chronic brain-wasting disease in humans called new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. An infection can smolder for years before showing symptoms.

Coats and Jim Rogers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said there should be no fear of mad cow entering the human food supply.

Rogers said that regulations keep any possibly diseased cow out of the system. Coats said a veterinarian inspects cattle before slaughter and organs are inspected afterward to assure sick animals are not made into food.

“I’m very comfortable with our protection for the animal feed and the food supply. I think we have very thoughtful, considered rules and regulations in place to protect the public health and food supply,” Coats said.

The government’s investigation this summer hunted 200 adult cows and determined that 143 were slaughtered, two were found alive, 34 were presumed dead and one was known to be dead. Twenty were classified as untraceable.

In the end, the probe was unable to determine how the 12-year-old Brahma cow was infected.

Cow’s history

In an epidemiology report dated July 4, the owner said the cow was marketed because of her “poor body condition, which had not improved despite the owner weaning her large 2003 calf early.” The owner stated that the cow had “always been an excitable animal and had fallen while she was being loaded to go to the market, but this was not unusual behavior for her in his opinion.”

The cow was sold through a livestock sale on Nov. 11, 2004, and transported to a packing plant where she and another were found dead on the truck. They were transported to a pet food plant later that day and sampled for mad cow testing.

Officials say they believe she was positive because she ate contaminated feed before the United States banned ground-up cattle remains from cattle feed. The government says the only certain way the disease is spread is through eating brain and other nerve tissue from already-infected cows.

Unable to find a cause or to definitively find some of her herd or offspring, officials say the investigation was hampered by inadequate record keeping. They caution that the national system to trace animal movements needs to be upgraded to make it similar to how FedEx tracks packages.

“The ability to trace back is possible and does exist, but it takes some time and a bit of detective work to figure out where animals were and where their cohorts were,” said Dr. Jack Whittier, beef extension specialist at Colorado State University.

With 14 million cattle in Texas alone, a more efficient system is necessary, insiders say.

“Right now we rely on tags and paper tracking. In the future, we’d like to move to a database system in which the animals are tracked through a computer or other technologies,” said Rogers of the USDA.

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