As the government planned a weeklong round of cattle-killing in response to a mad-cow case in this town, hundreds of residents crammed into a school gymnasium Saturday to show their support for the beef industry.
About 350 people attended a rally that featured booths offering literature about mad cow disease and T-shirts encouraging people to eat beef. Many more stopped by for free food; organizers gave away ribs, hot dogs and more than 1,000 hamburgers.
"I'm more afraid of someone at a restaurant not washing their hands than I'm worried about this," said 75-year-old Frances Sonner, at the rally with her older brother, Clarence.
Mabton, in south-central Washington, is home to the Sunny Dene ranch, where a Holstein with mad cow disease lived before it was slaughtered Dec. 9. Post-mortem tests on the cow, which was born in Canada, revealed it had the disease, prompting dozens of nations to ban U.S. beef until its safety could be ensured.
Steve Erickson, president of the Washington Cattlefeeders Association, flipped burgers at the rally and defended his industry.
"There are many obstacles you can't always control, but we feel we have a nutritious, healthy product, and what we're fighting is emotional perception," Erickson said. "The American beef supply is the safest in the world."
Also Saturday, 10 cows arrived at a slaughterhouse in the eastern Washington town of Wilbur - the first of 129 from the Sunny Dene ranch being killed because they are believed to have come from the same farm in Alberta, Canada, as the diseased Holstein.
Ten more cows were to be killed Monday, followed by 20 to 30 a day through the week, USDA spokesman Nolan Lemon said. Dead cattle that test negative for mad cow disease will be buried in a landfill, officials said. If some are found to have the disease, those carcasses will be incinerated or destroyed with acid.
North America's only other case of mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta in May. Officials have said they believe both infected animals probably got the disease as calves because they were born before August 1997, the year the United States and Canada banned cattle feed that contained parts of cattle, sheep or other cud-chewing animals.
Scientists believe contaminated feed is the main transmitter of mad cow disease.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats holes in the brains of cattle and is incurable. Humans can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, by consuming contaminated beef products. Officials have said, however, that the meat supply is safe.
This past week, authorities in Washington state killed a herd of 449 calves, including an offspring of the infected cow. Those were not tested because the animals were too young for the disease to have yet appeared. BSE has an incubation period of several years.