Cowed by fear: the community at the heart of America's first BSE outbreak

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The Independent US

On a small raised stage at one end of the hall the Latino band was doing its best to keep the party going but it was clear that the enthusiasm for celebration was muted.

"Many people here work on the farms," said Ramon Gutierrez, his brow furrowed and his quiet, worried voice almost drowned out by the combined noise of the electric guitar and accordion.

"We think it is going to be bad for the community. Most people here - I would say 90 per cent - work on the land. It's going to create a lot of problems for the people."

In the hard-working farming community of Mabton in Washington State, facing problems and finding ways of overcoming those difficulties is a way of life.

But since the discovery four days ago of America's first suspected case of BSE in a cow from one of the town's dairies, those problems have started stacking up even higher. And if the worst predictions come true there may be no quick or obvious solution. "I've got four children," said Mr Gutierrez, 45, himself a dairy hand, as one of his young daughters ran up to him and pulled at his hand. "There will not be as much money available."

Just a few hundred yards away from the sports club Christmas Eve party where Mr Gutierrez and his friends were talking about little other than the likely effect the discovery of the infected cow will have on their community, Sid and William Wavrin were also facing a bleak future. It was a Holstein cow from the two brothers' 4,000- strong herd that tested positive for BSE. Their farm, the Sunny Dene Ranch, which employs 18 people and has an annual turn-over of $18m (£10m), is now under federal quarantine.

Wary of the dozens of reporters who have descended on Mabton, the two brothers have politely declined to say very much by way of explanation, leaving the matter of investigation to the officials from the US Department of Agriculture (Usda). "It's a very active investigation. Obviously, personal information we can't discuss," William Wavrin told a local reporter. His brother, Sid, added: "I just don't have anything to say. It's all going through the regulatory authorities."

Mabton is in the Yakima Valley, about 170 miles south-east of Seattle, although it might as well be in a different world to the cosmopolitan coastal city. Scruffy, down-at-heel and set beneath low hills, there are only a few other sources of employment other than the dairy and fruit farms that fill the valley floor, where the air is rich with the smell of manure and animal feed. The local people say that perhaps 80 per cent or more of the population of 2,000 is Hispanic, mainly farm labourers from Mexico.

Those workers and the farm-owners alike are well aware that if the Sunny Dene cow is officially confirmed as being infected, all of the herd will have to be slaughtered and the brains and spinal cords of the animals tested. Because there is no effective test on live animals, other neighbouring herds may also have to be slaughtered if there is even a suspicion that their feed may also have been infected. The knock-on effect is easy to imagine, but terrifying to consider.

"This is a poverty-stricken place, it's all about hard-work," said Mike Britton, a police officer who was on patrol over what should have been the festive period. He added that he kept a small number of beef cattle on his land and he knew most of the farmers and many of the workers.

"This is going to be very damaging," he said. "I only give natural feed - grass and whatever - so I'm safe. But this could not just affect the dairy farmers, a lot of people here grow hay. But if no one is buying that, it's going to go to nothing."

Sid Leyendekker, owner of Hidden Valley Dairy, which was initially and erroneously identified as the source of the infected cow, could be hit in many ways. In addition to his own herd he grows silage and corn for other farmers.

"It's not just the dairy or beef industry, it's all the other people who support the industry," he said.

Investigators are involved in a desperate effort to discover how and where the Sunny Dene cow became infected. Officials believe the four-and-a-half year-old animal was bought in 2001 from one of the sale yards in central Washington.

On 9 December the cow was sent to Vern's Moses Lake Meats slaughterhouse. Because it was unable to walk - a so-called "downer" - a sample of its brain and spinal cord was taken for inspection as part of a national programme of surveillance.

The meat was processed at three plants, in Centralia and in Portland and Clackamas in neighbouring Oregon. Usda said the slaughterhouse had issued a voluntary recall of 10,410 pounds of beef "out of an abundance of caution".

The infected parts of the animal were sent to a rendering plant and did not enter the food chain, officials said.

Tom Ellestad, co-owner of Vern's, claimed the federal process set up to detect mad-cow disease worked well. "We have done nothing wrong," he said. "The inspection system works because we caught this cow."

But if previous experience is anything to go by, including that of beef farmers across the border in Canada, who had to deal with a BSE infection earlier this year, official pronouncements about safeguards and checks will do little to reassure the public. In addition to the number of countries who have suspended imports of American beef, three US grocery-store chains have stopped selling beef from one of the Oregon suppliers that received the suspect meat.

To Monica Herrera, 29, a mother of six children, who was spending Christmas Eve with friends in a Latino diner and pool hall, none of it made any sense.

"Beef and dairy is worth a lot of money in this state," she said. "Why is it not protected? Why is there not research into this? Why can't they stop it before it starts?"