Back at the time of the seizure of the Vermont sheep in 2001, USDA said it would submit samples for mouse bioassay which would take several years to yield results. USDA indicated the test would show definitively whether the sheep had scrapie, atypical scrapie or BSE.
After years went by with no results released on the final diagnosis I filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) in 2006 with APHIS asking for the results.
Still more years went by and I was asked whether I still wanted the results. I said I did and still more time passed.
Last spring I was told there was nothing responsive to my request at that time, but that there would be later in the year. So I re-filed my FOIA request and finally in 2010 I received four pages of test results from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge in the United Kingdom saying that the two samples submitted to them by APHIS from the Vermont sheep were negative for scrapie, atypical scrapie and BSE.
Under the USDA’s BSE emergency response plan the United Kingdom laboratory at Weybridge is the ultimate arbiter of BSE testing:
“Under USDA’s response plan, implemented in 1996, APHIS personnel conduct routine surveillance on cattle coming to slaughter as well as take samples from animals that display signs of central nervous system disorder at slaughter. Samples are sent to the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Any positive finding at that laboratory is considered a “presumptive positive,” and samples are sent to the United Kingdom’s Central Veterinary Laboratory, which is also known as the world reference laboratory, for confirmation.”
Legal Dead End
In 2004, Houghton Freeman, philanthropist and owner of one of the flocks of Vermont sheep filed suit against USDA in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims along with Larry and Linda Faillace.
Although Freeman and the Faillaces were chiefly seeking to have the USDA admit that their sheep were healthy and the seizure unwarranted, the U.S. Claims Court was the only venue available. But the sheep had already been taken and killed in 2001, making their Federal Appeals Court case moot.
The law firm representing the flock owners estimated the suit would cost around a quarter of a million dollars, and Freeman bore the cost of the suit for both farms. When the lawsuit was finally settled in 2009, Freeman was out of pocket a great deal more than the original estimate and settled for less than a third of what the lawsuit had cost him.
The Faillace’s only received the $215,000 paid to them in 2002 for their 125 sheep and hundreds of straws of frozen semen, which were all destroyed.
According to the Faillaces, although the Federal Claims Court case did not result in further compensation, it did yield what they were looking for, which was proof their sheep were healthy, and more importantly, documents and admissions clearly demonstrating USDA officials were aware of their sheep’s health long before the sheep were taken and killed.
The flock owners had sold some of their purebred registered East Friesian rams for $5,000 each because they were the only purebreds in the United States with generations of outstanding milk records to back them up. In addition the Faillaces had the only purebred Beltex sheep in America. The USDA valued their frozen ram semen at $35/straw even though the unique nature of their animals would have commanded a much higher price.
The other farms that surrendered their rams immediately were paid $6,000 to $7,000 each and were allowed to keep the progeny of their rams as well as the frozen semen from those rams. If there was such a great danger from the semen or the lambs of the Faillaces’, why wasn’t this alleged danger also dealt with? Clearly USDA wanted to make an example of the Faillaces by treating them far more harshly.
The Faillaces’ land was quarantined for five years after the seizure in addition to having been quarantined for several years before that. As it turned out the five-year quarantine after the seizure of the sheep was based on a draft document that was never formalized and seemingly should never have been implemented.
Dirty Science Gave Officials A Hasty But Convenient Green Light
The questionable “positive” test-results that USDA used to justify confiscation of the Vermont sheep were done at a lab that was not approved to handle the BSE-causing agent prior to the sheep testing, and it was later shut down (in 2003) for numerous violations.
According to the Faillaces, some of the appalling conditions in the Rubenstein lab at the Institute for Basic Research on Staten Island, New York came to public notice after a terrifying incident in which a technician described accidentally injecting herself with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)—a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that causes a fatal, incurable brain disease in humans. It turned out that the CJD agent was not even supposed to be present in the lab. The technician had been interviewed by the lab’s human resources personnel to find out why she was quitting and that is how the some of the foul conditions in the lab came out. These details were also ultimately revealed in the Claims Court case.
USDA Knew It Was Destroying Healthy Sheep
Also in connection with the lawsuit, Dr. Linda Detwiler USDA’s expert on TSEs was deposed (testified via affidavit, not removed from her position) in 2007 and stood by every statement she had made during the course of the action against the Vermont shepherds.
Others at USDA were deposed as well, but declined to answer several questions.
By June of 2007 there were four major areas of questioning still unanswered by USDA in the depositions. At this point Freeman considered pulling the plug on the lawsuit, but in the end persisted.
In June of 2008, the judge in the case ruled that USDA was compelled to answer the remaining questions and in July of 2008, Detwiler was again deposed; this time with different answers.
In the course of Detwiler’s deposition, the Faillaces learned that in 2000 the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa had re-tested the Freeman’s sheep that were positive according to the Rubenstein lab and they proved negative. USDA knew this and seized over four hundred Vermont sheep and killed them all anyway.
Was It Safe To Trust USDA?
According to the Faillaces, these results were withheld from three federal court cases, several FOIA requests by the Faillaces and were only released in 2008—seven years after the sheep were seized and killed.
It was revealed later that in 2007 USDA received preliminary results from an ELISA test from Weybridge that was negative in both cases.
They also learned that the preliminary results from Weybridge on the mouse bioassay were also negative. As mentioned above, the final test results released to USDA in 2009 were also negative.
In addition, the Faillaces learned from the Detwiler deposition that the Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, was never told of the many negative test results, but was only told of the tainted positive ones from the Rubinstein Lab. Furthermore, Detwiler admitted that there was no evidence the sheep the Faillace’s imported had ever been exposed to any feed contaminated with animal byproducts which was the contention of USDA.
The Faillaces had gone to great lengths prior to importing the animals to make sure the sheep were in a scrapie surveillance program and not fed any sort of feed with animal byproducts and had records from the countries from which they had imported the sheep to that effect.
In the end, perhaps the Faillaces will have the last laugh. Linda Faillace’s book, Mad Sheep has so far sold thousands of copies. A sequel is in the works and the Faillace’s have been approached by Hollywood for a dramatization of their struggle to try to save their sheep from confiscation by USDA.
Also their fight will be featured in an upcoming documentary by Kristin Canty called Farmageddon.
Most of the same staffers still populate the offices that assailed the Faillaces and Freemans. Read more than you ever dreamed could happen to you if you cooperate with the USDA in Mad Sheep, available from the sheep! Bookstore.