Maddening Fight Over Vt. Sheep

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On July 13, the owners of two Vermont sheep farms were called into the Montpelier offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and given an ultimatum: turn over their flocks or have them seized. Either way, animals would be destroyed.

Four of the sheep, the owners were told, had tested positive for a disease called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy," or TSE. More ominously, the sheep might even be harboring the most dreaded strain of TSE: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, the so-called mad cow disease.

The owners recoiled. These were prize flocks imported from Belgium and the Netherlands. The owners viewed them as the best milk-producing stock in the country. Behind the pride in the milk records was love. To the children at one of the farms, the sheep were as much pets as livestock. They seemed well, and the owners did not accept the test results.

So they went to court.

As lawyers now exchange discovery documents, Vermont is the scene of a pitched battle over how to protect the United States from BSE. Federal marshals patrol country lanes to monitor the sheep. Friends of the farmers keep vigil. Local newspapers and radio programs are filled with Save the Sheep campaigns. Vermont's health commissioner has warned consumers to avoid cheeses made by the farms. Television news vans pull into farmyards, any farmyards, to film the "mad sheep" of Vermont.

On one side of the struggle is a USDA official who points to the smoldering carnage in Europe, with millions of cattle and 83 people dead or dying, and demands: Can we afford to risk that here?

On the other are the farm owners, one of whom, Houghton Freeman, just happens to be one of the richest men in America.

It was 1993 when Linda and Larry Faillace hit upon the idea of a sheep dairy. He had a doctorate in animal science, and they both wanted to start a family farm. Neither had practical experience, though Linda grew up on what she calls "a hobby farm."

He was from New Jersey and she from upstate New York, but they had always wanted to live in Vermont. They selected a remote northern part of the state known as the Mad River Valley.

"At that time, 40 million pounds of sheep milk's cheese was being imported into the U.S. every year, but there were no dairy sheep in the country," Linda Faillace says. "There were people milking meat breeds."

The Faillaces toured sheep dairies in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium before deciding on a breed they found in Belgium: the East Friesian. The farms, she says, were "immaculate," and Friesians' output averaged 1,000 pounds of milk per lactation, compared with the 80 and 100 pounds from meat breeds.

By 1995, they had received faxed birth records, videos and photographs of hand-chosen stock from certified disease-free herds. "We chose them as if they might have been prize puppies," Linda Faillace says.

They also had found another interested buyer back home: Freeman, whose family farming roots go back generations in Vermont. But family wealth comes from AIG, one of the largest insurance underwriters in the world, which was co-founded by his father.

Freeman, a reclusive philanthropist, has poured millions of dollars into agricultural land preservation in the state. He came across the Faillace business plan when the couple applied to his charity for help in a preservation project. "It was really exciting when Mr. Freeman said that he wanted to get sheep," Linda Faillace says.

In 1996, 65 sheep arrived from Europe. By July 1998, the sheep had bred so successfully that the two farms together had an estimated 196 animals grazing. The Faillaces' three children had become pasture managers, shepherds and milkers. They gave their sheep storybook names such as Mrs. Friendly. An orphan lamb named Mo lives with the family dog as a pet.

When her family was first contacted by USDA officials, Linda Faillace thought that the government must want to congratulate them. But instead, at a meeting in July 1998, Linda Detwiler, a senior staff veterinarian with the USDA, said she was concerned the two imported flocks could be harboring mad cow disease.

"We just laughed and said, 'There's no way,' " Linda Faillace says.

By October 1998, the USDA quarantined the farms and began testing culled animals for TSEs. In the meantime, it was agreed that the farms could continue to breed their animals, which was necessary to keep the ewes lactating. They could then use the milk to make cheese. Extensive testing in Europe had never shown transmission of BSE, or any other TSEs, through milk or milk products.

The Faillaces joined the Freeman farm in cheese-making. The Freeman handmade, farm-aged cheeses are called Northeast Kingdom. The Faillaces chose to honor their children and locale, calling theirs Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley.

It was a name they would come to regret when they turned on the nightly news and saw video footage of their daughter making cheese, intercut with footage of the mad cows of England slipping uncontrollably in their paddocks.

Just as the Faillaces and Freeman were bringing their sheep into the country in 1996, Detwiler was promoted to coordinator of the USDA's working group on TSEs. The sheep form of TSE, scrapie, was first noted in the U.S. in the 1940s. So far, the U.S. has been free from the cattle version, BSE or mad cow disease. Detwiler's job is to keep it that way.

She has 15 years' experience working with sheep scrapie, the longest recognized of the spongy-brain diseases. The agents that cause them are unknown. The mechanisms for the spread of scrapie are not well understood, though it is known to be passed by infected placentas during lambing season. In many ways, controlling scrapie is like boxing in the dark, she says. "There is so much that we don't know."

"The disease," Detwiler says, "is too devastating" to take chances. Once infected, the incubation time of a TSE can last years. During that time, TSEs ride in their animal victim's immune system, then flood over to the central nervous system, until they reach the brain.

Only in this final stage are the symptoms obvious; the brains turn to sponge. There is no cure. The only way to stop the spread is to destroy any animal that might be infected, or sometimes whole flocks. "If you had to put a flock down, grown men would cry," Detwiler says.

The only mercy of scrapie is that it does not appear to affect people. When BSE emerged in dairy cows in England in the 1980s, British veterinarians assumed that humans would enjoy the same immunity. This conclusion proved rash. In May 1995, a young Royal Air Force cadet in Wiltshire became the first human victim of "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or human BSE. Cheap meat products made from tainted offal are thought to have spread the disease.

Detwiler watched as BSE devastated British dairy and beef farming. Feed containing "ruminant protein," or the rendered remains of slaughtered cattle, proved to be the mechanism for spreading the disease in cattle. Since 1996, in culls demanded by its outraged European trading partners, Britain has slaughtered more than 4 million head of cattle. Their remains smolder still in U.K. incinerators.

Zero Tolerance for Deadly BSE

Grown men did more than cry. Farmers gassed themselves in their cars and blew their brains out in farmyard pens. Meanwhile, young people keep dying from BSE: college students, brides-to-be and expectant mothers. So far, 83 are dead or dying, including a 13-year-old.

In 1998, the European Union posted a red flag over its own sheep population, publishing a statement that it was "highly likely that European sheep had been exposed to feed contaminated with the BSE agent."

The report caused a furor and a collapse in sheep markets. But it was not a clean piece of science. One of the researchers on the EU advisory committee was not only highlighting sheep peril but also promoting his unproven diagnostic test for BSE in sheep.

Nevertheless, it alerted Detwiler to an unquestionable result from the longest-established TSE lab in the world, one that suffered no conflict of interest, the Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1993, it published results that it had successfully infected a sheep with feed deliberately spiked with a tiny amount of BSE.

To her mind, there was no getting around it: Belgium has had 16 cases of BSE in cows. BSE is thought to have been spread by contaminated feed. The Vermont breeding stock could have been exposed to BSE in Belgium.

"Could" was enough. In October 1998, she quarantined the sheep.

"BSE is something where you don't want to even take a chance," she says.

Six months into the quarantine, the Faillaces sought to reassure Detwiler about the history of their sheep. They flew in advisors from Belgium armed with feeding records and scrapie-free certification documents. Detwiler and a panel of advisors were not convinced. "There were a lot of the same type of certificates around in Europe for cows that got BSE," Detwiler says.

Under law, Detwiler needed more than suspicion to condemn the sheep. For the next two years, culled animals from the Vermont farms kept testing negative. This meant one of two things: TSEs weren't there, or the methods available weren't detecting them. The agency also used the brain material from the culled Vermont sheep in a battery of experimental tests, which proved inconclusive.

But for many researchers, the mere presence in America of imported sheep that could have been exposed to BSE was an unnecessary risk. Quarantine was not a safe compromise. Not enough was known about how the disease seeds itself.

In November 1999, Robert Rohwer, director of the Neurovirology Laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, wrote to the governor of Vermont imploring him to either seize and incinerate the sheep or deport them back to Belgium.

But that was not in the governor's power. The letter did, however, cause Freeman to dig in deeper. "You would only hope that if someone was going to write a castigating letter about your sheep, that you might get a copy of it," Freeman attorney Thomas Amidon says.

Meanwhile, with each day that passed, the business of destroying the sheep became ever more difficult. East Friesians are very successful at breeding. The two flocks were more than doubling in size each year.

When Detwiler got to work on July 10, the ammunition she needed to destroy the sheep was finally on her desk. A lab report confirmed that four of the sheep brains showed evidence of TSE.

This new test, approved by the USDA in 1994, is called a "Western Blot." Rather than rely on visual evidence of disease, it uses antibodies to detect the presence of a mutant protein known to be altered by TSEs. A positive result is evidence of the existence of a TSE, but not which kind. It could be mad cow disease or it could be sheep scrapie. Differentiating between the two requires additional experiments that last two years.

Whatever TSE it was, Detwiler didn't want it in Vermont. She raced to Montpelier, where state officials hurriedly summoned the Freemans and the Faillaces. They had 24 hours to agree to hand over the sheep, or they would be slapped with an emergency disposal order.

But again the Faillaces and Freemans balked. "I think it's very easy to sit in a center of power and look out and say, 'That's an itty-bitty state; it's two small flocks, and we'll take what we perceive to be the problem, and we'll incinerate it, and there'll be nothing left," says Freeman attorney Amidon.

To the Faillaces, it was looking like a conspiracy. The latest "proof" was a bit too convenient. "We had the USDA coming in to seize our animals, and here we were thinking that not only were we right, but we were looking at fraudulent science," Linda Faillace says.

The Faillaces stalled, first by trying to elude process servers, second by objecting to USDA appraisers coming to value the animals. Their sense of persecution only heightened when, five days after the Montpelier showdown, the health commissioner of Vermont, Dr. Jan Carney, issued an "alert" warning consumers not to eat the Freemans' and Faillaces' cheeses.

There were no grounds for this. Milk has never been shown to carry any kind of TSE. European cheeses made on farms that have had confirmed cases of BSE are freely for sale in the U.S. Carney's office has not responded to queries about the inconsistency. The Vermont Cheese Council reports that its switchboard lit up with calls from concerned consumers and that misleading reports about "tainted" milk appeared as far afield as Connecticut.

With Freeman footing the bulk of the legal bills, the Faillaces and Freeman were given permission by a U.S. District Court to challenge the USDA. The scope was narrow. They could contest the Western Blot test.

The test had been performed in Staten Island, N.Y., by Dr. Richard Rubenstein. The farmers brought in expert witnesses from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and University of Kentucky who had some technical quarrels with the presentation but backed the Staten Island results and praised Rubenstein. But to be on the safe side, both independent scientists recommended that the tests be repeated.

This could not be done. There was no more brain sample, the USDA said.

The Faillaces and Freeman don't believe it, or the result.

"If there is someone who has cancer, the first thing someone does is go get a second opinion," Linda Faillace says. "And that's what we have not been entitled to do."

Speaking for Freeman, Amidon says that he plans to press for the USDA to recover the missing brain samples for retesting.

Both sides are now preparing for a new hearing before the U.S. District Court. As new evidence, the Faillaces and Amidon point to tests conducted on the eyelids of supposedly infected sheep that came back negative.

Detwiler sighs at this. These tests, she says, are unproven, just as other experimental tests that gave false positives.

Fight Pits Farmer Against Farmer

With solid scientific answers elusive, the repercussions of an all-out tactical war waged by the farmers over the summer are still being felt. Throughout August, both the Faillaces and Freeman argued that the sheep were so healthy that the Belgians would take them back. The Belgians promptly extended the offer, though they lacked permission from the European Union. The USDA declined. The Belgians now admit that in the event the sheep are returned, they too plan to destroy most of them.

At this point, Linda Faillace announced, "We are having second thoughts. We think we'd like them to stay in Vermont."

Here, however, their welcome is wearing thin. "There's a harsh realization here that it's much bigger than the two farms involved, and there are governmental interests that have a view on the subject that is far beyond Vermont, far beyond sheep and far beyond cheese," says Jed Davis, vice president of the Vermont Cheese Council.

The conflict also is pitting farmer against farmer. The Faillaces estimate that if their sheep are seized, they should be compensated $11.3 million, or more than $100,000 per sheep. "If you look at it on a per animal basis, that's a really high number," Linda Faillace says. "But if you look at it, this is what we've put our last seven years into."

The Freemans, who have twice the number of sheep as the Faillaces, estimate their loss to be between $1 million and $2 million, including farm facilities such as their milking parlor.

A third farm that had bought sheep from the Faillaces, and instantly sold their animals to the USDA when the blots came back positive, accepted $3,000 per sheep.

But the Faillaces still claim overwhelming local support. They have, they say, a 450-name "phone tree" to alert locals if officials move in to snatch the flock. "I think there's 100 who could be to the farm in a matter of five minutes," Linda Faillace says.

Two people who won't be joining a barricade are David and Cindy Major of Putney, Vt. They produce a sheep's milk cheese, Vermont Shepherd, that for seven of the last 10 years, including this one, has taken a top prize at the American Cheese Society annual awards. But when news wagons came to film their sheep this summer, it was not to celebrate the cheese but to use the footage as backdrops for "mad sheep" stories.

"We would like the whole thing to be over," says Cindy Major. "Vermont has put so much into building up dairies that put clean, delicious, healthy foods on people's tables, and it's all in danger."

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John Jackson of The Times' library contributed to this story.

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