It was just another routine day at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash. Routine, that is, until some of the staff at the 4,000 cow dairy operation noticed that a Holstein cow had become paralyzed while giving birth. USDA veterinarians at the plant followed protocol and took a sample of her brain and sent it to the USDA’s Ames, Iowa, laboratory for BSE testing. Next a call came from the lab on Dec. 22 to the Veterinary Services Office of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), saying it had “a hot case.”
Dr. Andrea Morgan, who was standing in for chief veterinary officer Dr. Ron DeHaven, immediately called APHIS Administrator Bobby Acord and DeHaven.
APHIS and other USDA agencies had spent years preparing for a BSE case, but Acord and DeHaven knew what chaos a confirmed case would cause. Acord spent a sleepless night waiting for an update. DeHaven remembers waking up on the morning of Dec. 23 and thinking ‘Well, that was a horrible nightmare I had.’ His nightmare however, was reality. Another call came that morning from Ames, where further testing had identified the case as a “presumptive positive.”
The next official to be notified was Ann Veneman, who was then agriculture secretary. “I had taken most the day off as my brother and his family was visiting for Christmas,” Veneman recalls. Chief of staff, Dale Moore broke the news to Veneman, who quickly returned to her office and assembled senior staff and agency officials to the conference room.
USDA scientists told Veneman they were confident the sample was a positive and she directed staff to prepare to make the announcement. This was around 3 p.m. A press conference to make the announcement was planned for 5 p.m.
Almost right on schedule, Secretary Veneman announced at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 23 that the US had confirmed its first case of BSE. Veneman, at her insistence, also made the point of telling the media that she was confident in serving beef at her house for Christmas dinner. “After all, I had it in my refrigerator,” she recalls.
Alongside her as technical spokesman was DeHaven, who says he had no hint he would be participating in the press conference until a few minutes before it began. He had never thought about being the national spokesman for anything, so it was one of those “Holy Cow” moments, he says.
Former USDA officials and industry leaders subsequently called DeHaven one of the heroes of the hour. They also praised the way Secretary Veneman had prepared USDA for a case and the way she handled it. Characteristically, DeHaven downplays his role.
“I was just the guy in front of the cameras. We had a cast of hundreds working behind the scenes,” he says. DeHaven, though, can take credit for coining a phrase later to be widely used.
“In the press conference, we made the point that the cow’s skeletal muscle meat was safe to eat. However, we attempted to recall all this meat from the food supply. To explain this, I said we were doing it ‘out of an abundance of caution’,” he adds.
Several people would later dub the animal as “the cow that stole Christmas.” For it was 24/7 for the next eight days for many top USDA and industry officials as they immersed themselves in daily briefings for media, key members of Congress, industry officials and international trading partners. They were also planning new food-safety initiatives in light of the case.
“It is remarkable that our APHIS, FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] and administration employees gave up their holidays to respond, with many canceling holiday plans and returning to Washington,” Acord says. “Also noteworthy was the collaborative and mutually supportive working relationship between political and career employees. It was a great example of how government can work for the benefit of the public.”
Read the first of this two-part cover story in the December issue of Meat&Poultry.