For the last several months, I’ve been reading up on the subject of scrapie in sheep, and the government-mandated programs established with the goal of eradicating scrapie in our country. First, for the uninitiated, scrapie is the form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) that manifests in sheep. TSE manifesting in cattle (bovine) is the infamous BSE, or “mad cow disease.” Manifesting in deer, it’s called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), manifesting in felines: FSE. And, of course, in humans, it’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). It’s called scrapie in sheep because one of the symptoms is incessant itchiness, which causes sheep to rub up against things, and eventually “scrape” their wool off.
Of course, everyone knows the story with mad cow disease, and why we should all be concerned about it. Occurrences of BSE devastate the market for meat, both the local and international market, as consumers become fearful of the product and stop buying it. And all of these diseases are horrible ways for an animal (or person) to die; scrapie can destroy one’s herd, slowly and terribly. Check out some appalling videos of animals suffering from scrapie here. It’s certainly sad to watch these, but I assume these animals are being kept for research purposes, to learn more about the disease, and thus not euthanized once the problem is known. I have to imagine that these videos, earned at the cost of a few animals’ suffering, hopefully will convince legions of people to be worried about this disease.
Scrapie gets less consumer and media attention and, thus far, only bizarre laboratory attempts have gotten TSE to “jump” between species. We don’t (yet) have huge losses to scrapie in our country. But, it is still of grave concern, as it would be terrible to find scrapie in one’s own animals, and poor industry management of the disease impacts the international market. And, ignoring it risks the “someday” possibility that a form of it could start species-jumping, creating a catastrophic problem for our meat supply, and human health.
So, given the concerns over lost revenue in the lamb and mutton industry due to wary consumers and dead sheep, our good ol’ government, in cooperation with the sheep producer industry, has established a scrapie eradication project. The idea is to try to get rid of the disease completely in our country, and to boost consumer confidence in our country’s product. There are currently two concurrent programs in place, the mandatory one, and the voluntary one. And, this is what I have been studying, to decide what my participation (if any) should be. Following is my greatly simplified summary of what I’ve found out.
The mandatory program is the “lesser” of the two, compliance is easier. It is called the National Scrapie Eradication Program(NSEP), and requires that all breeding-age sheep and goats be tagged to their flock-of-origin before they are moved off the property, and their whereabouts need to be recorded throughout their lives. The idea is that if an animal is found to have scrapie, that our government needs to be able to track where that animal was born, and where it’s been, so that all possibly exposed animals could be found (and probably culled). Animals heading to slaughter don’t count, and don’t need to be tagged. Tags and tagger tools are provided free when you enroll in the program.
Though this program is theoretically mandatory nationwide for all sheep producers, I haven’t quite figured out what “they” do to you if they learn you are not complying—I think nothing, at this point. Certainly a gander on craigslist can find many small-potatoes sellers who are moving mature sheep and goats with no tags, probably without knowledge that they are breaking the rules. So, enforcement doesn’t seem to be happening, at least right now.
This mandatory program conjures up all of the understandable objections people have to the government getting involved in our private business. You can check out www.nonais.org to read all of the rationale for why we should be concerned about this trend: things like, will such a cumbersome government project actually yield useful results? Will the overhead cost of all this tracking end up costing more than the potential lost revenues from scrapie-wary consumers? Is it too much to ask of small-scale producers to worry about keeping records of every time they take their pet sheep to the county fair? Is it an invasion of privacy? Are all these weird diseases really a problem with factory farming, such that only those people should be regulated? Indeed, there are many valid arguments against embracing stereotypical government boondoggles, and I salute all those who remind us of these concerns.
On the other hand, TSE and scrapie are, well, terrifying diseases. And sometimes producers in an industry need to organize and cooperate to develop programs that inspire consumer confidence in their product, increase public safety and the safety of the animals which we raise. So, it seems we must do something to convince buyers of our sheep and lamb that we are doing everything practical to eliminate scrapie in our industry. And, that is where the other program comes into play—formally known as the “voluntary” program, the Scrapie Flock Certification Program (SFCP) is a much more rigorous method of maintaining and proving the health of one’s sheep flock (as it relates to scrapie).
The SFCP, like the NSEP, also requires tagging and tracking of all breeding animals. But, it additionally requires annual inspections, and it goes a step further in limiting you from bringing in new ewes to your flock—you can only purchase ewes from other people who are also in the SFCP, and have been in it as long, or longer, than you. (Or, of course, you can close your flock and not bring in any new ewes at all.) The idea is that scrapie is mostly transmitted via birthing fluids. So, if you carefully restrict your animals’ exposure to potentially unsafe ewes and their birthing fluids, you can nearly eliminate your risk of scrapie infection in your flock, over time. Once five years have passed, and none of your sheep are showing symptoms of scrapie, it’s reasonably safe to conclude you don’t have it in your flock, and thus, you become “certified” in the SFCP.
Of course, there is the third option of not participating in either program, and I’m not sure what the governmental ramifications of that are, if any. The reason I’ve been reading up on all this is a combined desire to genuinely reduce my risk of scrapie in my flock, and also to find ways to make my saleable animals more valuable in the marketplace. So, long story short: this has been my mission, to figure out which program (if any) was right for me.