The New York Times, Feb 3, 2004
Man Who Killed the Mad Cow Has Questions of His Own. (Science Desk) Donald G. Mcneil Jr..
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 The New York Times Company
Shooting a cow turned Dave Louthan into a crusader. On Dec. 9, at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., Mr. Louthan killed the only mad cow found in the United States. Two weeks later, he says, he was dismissed after four years as Vern's slaughterer when he talked to the television crews outside and told them he was sure the cow, ground into hamburger, had already been eaten. The plant's owners did not return calls seeking comment.
''I got a big mouth,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Since then, it has gotten bigger. Using borrowed computers -- he has none of his own, only ''a microwave and a TV that gets four channels'' -- he started writing to newspapers, and is to testify today before the Washington State Legislature.
Contrary to reports from the federal Department of Agriculture, he asserts that the cow he killed was not too sick to walk. And it was caught not by routine surveillance, he says, but by ''a fluke'': he killed it outdoors because he feared it would trample other cows lying prostrate in its trailer, and the plant's testing program called for sampling cows killed outside only.
''Mad cows aren't downers,'' he said. ''They're up and they're crazy.'' The Agriculture Department disputes his account. Dr. Kenneth Petersen, a food safety official, faxed copies of the Dec. 9 inspector's report saying the cow was ''sternal,'' or down on its chest.
Mr. Louthan said he believed the government changed the report on Dec. 23, during the panic at Vern's when a positive test was found. The ''smoking gun,'' he said, is that it is the only one on the page marked ''unable to get temp'' while other cows' temperatures were recorded. It is easy, he said, to get a rectal temperature from a downed cow but hard from a jumpy one.
Dr. Petersen said that he had no indication the records were altered and that the veterinarian had told him the animal was lying so close to the trailer wall that a thermometer could not be used.
In his new role as bloody-handed industry critic, Mr. Louthan argues that too few cattle are tested for mad cow to say with certainty that beef is safe. ''One mad cow is a scare, but two is an epidemic,'' he said. ''They absolutely, positively don't want to find another.''
Ed Curlett, a department spokesman, said about 83 a month were tested at Vern's from October to December. (The testing began only in October, when the government starting paying $10 a brain sample.)
The department has not changed last year's plans to test 40,000 cows nationwide this year, out of 30 million slaughtered. Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, which represents slaughterhouses, called that ''plenty sufficient from a statistical standpoint.''
Mr. Louthan, who lives across the street from Vern's, said that the slaughtering was ''still going like crazy'' but that an inspector in the plant told him no more mad cow testing was being done.
Dr. Petersen said he did not know if Vern's was testing.
On Jan. 4, an angry Mr. Louthan started sending e-mail messages to all the inspectors on the department's Web site, asking, ''Are you just going to sit there with your hands in your pockets?'' and accusing Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman of lying when she said American beef was safe.
Since then, he said, green department cars have parked outside his house ''trying to scare me.''
He gave the name and number of one agent who he said had told him to get in the car and ordered him to stop sending e-mail. The agent refused to speak to a reporter, but a spokesman said Mr. Louthan had asked that they talk in the agent's car and the agent did not intimidate, harass or argue with him.
Mr. Louthan is no animal-rights champion. His good-old-boy braggadocio and Texas drawl make him sound like a parking-lot matador with a knocking gun -- a tube with a blank pistol cartridge that drives a bolt into the brain. Killing is ''really fun,'' and beats deboning, which he calls ''girls' work.''
''I'm fast, I'm efficient, and I know how to get in through their flight zones,'' he said, meaning the way nervous cows turn to flee.
At Vern's, he killed about 20 old dairy cows a day and buffaloes on Thursdays, along with the odd ostrich, emu and alpaca.
The now famous cow, he said, was a white Holstein from the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash.
She was ''a good walker,'' he said. As the driver poked her with a cattle prod, her eyes were ''all white, bugging out.''
''She wouldn't come down that step,'' he went on, ''and I knew she was fixing to double back in and trample the downers, and that's a mess,'' so he killed her there.
Mr. Louthan was also the plant's carcass splitter, and he has a warning about that too.
With a 400-pound band saw, he said, splitters cleave the spinal column from neck to tail as hot-water jets blast fat and bone dust off the saw. The slurry, with spinal cord in it, ''runs all over the beef,'' he said. The carcasses are then hosed with hot water and sprayed with vinegar.
Bucky Gwartney, director of research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, confirmed that most American slaughterhouses do the same. Since the Dec. 31 ruling that all cows older than 30 months must have their brains and spinal cords removed, ''processors are actively looking at changes,'' he said.
Mr. Louthan said the agent who ordered him to be quiet suggested that he was akin to ''an urban terrorist'' for spreading alarm about beef.
''I'm not,'' Mr. Louthan said. ''I just want to enjoy my cheeseburger like anybody else. I don't want to think: Is this the magic burger that's going to kill me?''