As new E. coli cases crop up week by week, the latest issue of The New Republic reveals one more example of the United States Department of Agriculture’s ineptitude in protecting the American food supply. In the article, titled “On the Lamb” (requires registration), science writer D. T. Max tells the story of the USDA’s triumphant moment in 2001 at the height of the mad-cow scare. Rather than address the questionable practice of turning cows into carnivores, flak-jacketed federal-agent USDA enforcers made headlines by raiding a tiny sheep dairy in Vermont. Writes Max,

The P.R. risk seemed low and the offense to the beef industry negligible: In the ag world, beef trumps lamb, lamb trumps cheese, and just about everything trumps a bunch of long-hairs making artisanal cheese in Vermont.

The ostensible reason for seizing and slaughtering the Faillace family’s 125 sheep—as well as the family’s dog and llama—was a European study implying that mad-cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, could morph into TSE, or transmittable spongiform encephalopathy, which could then affect sheep. But that study has since been discredited, as has the work of the lab where the Vermont sheep were tested. Sheep do get a similar neurological disease, called scrapie, but it doesn’t infect humans. And in the five years since the Faillace sheep were killed, the USDA has dragged its heels in doing the only test that could conclusively prove the presence of BSE in the sheep’s tissues.

The real issue, of course, isn’t only the probably pointless destruction of 125 sheep and the Faillaces’ livelihood. It’s the power of Big Beef—and the power of quick-fix, happy-face PR. As Faillace, now on a national book tour for her memoir Mad Sheep, says in an interview with a Vermont newspaper, she still doesn’t know why the family herd was targeted and who was behind it. “We don’t have any concrete answers and plenty of theories,” she says.

And what happened to Faillace’s “main antagonist,” USDA senior staff veterinarian Dr. Linda Detwiler? She is no longer on the government payroll. She now consults for Wendy’s and McDonald’s.

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