The cow that stole Christmas: Nearly 20 years since mad cow disease was first discovered in Washington state, one family still struggles

Sergio Madrigal and his wife, Rosa, stand outside the farm they owned, until recently, near Sunnyside, Washington.
Sergio Madrigal and his wife, Rosa, stand outside the farm they owned, until recently, near Sunnyside, Washington. (Courtesy: Anna King / Northwest News Network)



It has been almost 20 years since Sergio Madrigal and his wife, Rosa, had nearly 450 calves outside of Sunnyside. All fo the calves had to be killed. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture took them away to be euthanized. One of the animal’s mothers was infected with BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease.

It was difficult to sort out that small animal from the rest of the herd of young cattle, so the USDA killed them all.

The government paid the Madrigals some money for the cattle but the couple said it was still a huge setback and loss for their farm. 

“Yo soy Sergio Madrigal. Vengo de Michoacán, Mexico. [I am Sergio Madrigal. I come from Michoacan, Mexico.]” said Sergio Madrigal. 

Sergio left the interview after just a few words and walked away behind his pickup truck – his eyes squinted with tears. He looked away. Then Rosa explained that nearly two decades later, they’re not doing better. She said they’re worse off.

“It’s hard on us,” she said through tears. “It’s because we lost everything. You know, all this, we worked so hard for it for so many years. My kids, now we don’t have anything. We don’t even have a place to live.” 

“… Y mis niños desde chiquitos trabajando pa’ hacer esto que hice,” said Sergio Madrigal. “[… And my kids–from a young age–working toward all of this that I worked for.]” 

Rosa Madrigal said, “We lost the whole farm, everything, our house. We’re with nothing. We have nothing.”

A mad cow in Mabton

In December 2003 residents of the small town of Mabton, Washington probably didn’t figure on being known for a cattle disease

“People still joke about it,” said Rachel Ruelas, the current mayor of Mabton with a laugh. “We’re known as the mad cow community.”

Ruelas said back then, there were maybe a dozen satellite news trucks parked in the tiny burg’s downtown. They had their dishes all deployed – a strange scene in a sleepy, small town, she said. 

“It felt like the movies,” Ruelas said.

Overnight, the small town had made international news. Although the cow had already been slaughtered and was not in Mabton any longer.

Nowadays, Ruelas said the town has largely moved on from mad cow. Her own grown child and other young people in Mabton don’t even remember it. 

Mabton has a population of around 2,000 now. 

They have a bigger police force than they did in the early 2000s. The department went from one officer to four officers now, she said. There is a new housing development in town, a new Dollar General, a new restaurant called Rancho El Alazan and a new Wheeler’s Smoke n Gas with a Skippers restaurant inside. A new splash pad is in the works for children, next spring. 

So what is mad cow disease anyway? 

Mad cow disease, or BSE, is a brain-wasting disease that can cause an animal to have trouble standing or walking and cause an animal to lose weight or give less milk, according to the USDA.

In the case of the Mabton holstein, the cow had come down from Canada to a U.S. farm. It had three calves, two lived. The cow was a “downer” animal, or a cow that couldn’t walk well and had been butchered. According to officials with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the infected cow didn’t make it into the human food supply. 

Shortly after the cow tested positive for BSE, the USDA banned all downer cattle from entering the food supply. 

All cattle products, like bones and offal, were also banned from entering into the cattle feed supply.

After the cow in Mabton, there have been five other cases of BSE in the United States.

Problems worldwide 

Still, mad cow disease in one single Holstein cow back then did boggle exports from the Northwest and international trade. 

All sorts of beef were in many products that were shipped around the world – so when the world stopped accepting U.S. beef, it shut down a lot. 

French fries par-cooked in beef tallow, organ meats that usually were sold in Asia, and hides for leather were just some of the products that got stuck in the U.S. without takers.

In the case of french fries, massive loads weren’t accepted at ports in Asia.

Dale Lathim of the Potato Marketing Association of North America said nowadays, beef tallow fries are very rare – they would have to be special-ordered by a commercial customer. Instead, major Northwest french fry companies have flavoring compounds that don’t use meat, he said.

Derrell Peel from Oklahoma State University is a worldwide beef market expert. He remembers the 23rd of December well.

“I had a cell phone then and by the next morning my home phone and my cell phone alternated with reporters calling me from all over the country,” Peel said. “I had a number of calls.  My kids were absolutely in amazement. They would take turns bringing me whichever phone was ringing.” 

Peel said beef prices plummeted after the USDA made an announcement about the mad cow case. Then trade shut down tight and it took nearly a decade to open up all of that U.S. trade again.

“The biggest impact of a lot of these kinds of events is the uncertainty. That’s a lot of what causes the market reaction is the level of uncertainty,” Peel said. “With the benefit of hindsight, you can say the market overreacts but that overreaction comes out of the uncertainty of how big a situation this is, and how deep and how long these impacts are going to affect the market.”

Some trade – with Canada and Mexico – returned rather quickly. Other markets, like Japan, had a longer timeline to come back to American beef. 

Have things changed? 

“We have more precise traceability,” said Dan Wood, the executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation. “The more advanced, more precise traceability allows the food supply to be kept safe, without wasting as much as was wasted 20 years ago.”

Wood said people now are more averse to food wastage from an environmental perspective, as well. Those more than 700 that were killed then – including the Madrigal’s 450 or so– wouldn’t likely have to happen now, Wood said. 

“Oftentimes, now with traceability, you can know how long a cow was at a particular field or facility, instead of knowing that they were there at some point, like we did 20 years ago,” Wood said. “We didn’t have that 20 years ago. We had the space – we knew that a cow was at this field but we didn’t have the time – and the ability to correlate that to other livestock.” 

Now, cattle operators are shifting to electronic ear tags. Those tags can be identified at points of sale by walking by a reader panel or with a high-tech wand. It can also help farmers and ranchers keep statistics, like how much milk an animal produces each day. It can even track – like a human fitness tracker – how much the animal lays down, eats and walks.     

Wood said, although electronic tags cost farmers, he thinks the tags will be used more often in the future. He said most dairy farmers don’t brand anymore, they are using the tags. 

The traceability was done right and quickly 20 years ago, Wood said. 

“Even though everything was done right and quickly and the food was secure, it took a while to unravel all the perceptions,” he said. “And I think the trade restrictions were opportunistic by other countries.” 

Wood said the next time around, with whatever disease comes, the tighter traceability should allow the USDA to not have to kill as many animals and for the market to recover more quickly. 

Terrible toll

Still, the terrible job of euthanizing animals and protecting the U.S. herd is devastating for those that have to carry it out in the long term, said Amber Itle. She is Washington’s Veterinary for the state Department of Agriculture. 

She said, 20 years ago, mad cow disease was really sad. Although only one cow tested positive for the disease, hundreds of cattle had to be killed to protect the food chain. Itle said now, the most pressing disease they are dealing with isn’t mad cow – but bird flu. She said euthanizing thousands of birds is affecting the mental health of many of her agriculture and veterinary colleagues.

Some of those animals are children’s 4-H show chickens or pets in backyards. It’s heartbreaking for  officials to gain the trust of the people, then dispatch their birds, Itle said. 

“We’re recognizing that we can’t keep doing this,” she said. “We can’t keep going out and keep killing all these birds. We want different tools to use. We want vaccines. We want another way of dealing with it.” 

She said with mad cow, it was one terrible incident but with bird flu it’s a much bigger ripple. 

“Maybe the tsunami is coming,” she said. “I don’t know, but yeah, we need a different strategy for these sustained responses.” 

Itle said more serious risks today are a cattle-pandemic of foot and mouth disease or an even more virulent bird flu and those could require years of response. She worries about that more than mad cow disease, she said.

Sergio Madrigal and his wife, Rosa, sit at El Valle Family Mexican Restaurant in Sunnyside, eating fajitas under Christmas tinsel, although they weren’t feeling festive

Sergio Madrigal and his wife, Rosa, sit at El Valle Family Mexican Restaurant in Sunnyside, eating fajitas under Christmas tinsel, although they weren’t feeling festive. (Courtesy: Anna King / Northwest News Network)

‘Hard times come again no more’

After standing in the cold outside their old farm, Sergio and Rosa Madrigal drove to a Mexican restaurant in Sunnyside, called El Valle. 

There, under the festive Christmas tinsel and over fajitas, they recounted the rest of their grim story from the past 20 years. 

First the calves, then in 2008, cattle prices dipped a lot with the economy. Then came COVID which laid the family low several times.

“Whoever felt better had to come out and feed the animals,” said Rosa. 

The Madrigals were evicted from their farm earlier this month. Now, they said their family of seven is living across three households with other family and friends. They are unable to stay all together for lack of room. 

Sergio works construction on top of farming. Rosa is a part-time caregiver. 

‘No help’

Agriculture is tough. Building something for their four girls and son is really tough, the Madrigals said. Losing cattle to the mad cow scare – tough. In the good times, Sergio and Rosa say they had more than 2,000 animals. 

She said, “At the end – there was no help.”