When 402 cattle cross the Canada border destined for a feedlot in Washington state and instead show up on a ranch 200 miles away, someone has a lot of explaining to do.

In fact, a lot of people have explaining to do -- the truckers, cattle owner, rancher, processor, USDA and the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

That's the crux of the investigation the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA have undertaken during the past three months.

The type of tests and paperwork required for a direct trip to the feedlot are different from those required for cattle going to pasture, so authorities at the state and federal level want to know exactly what happened and how it happened.

But this investigation is not solely about paperwork. The threat of disease is a top-of-mind issue for cattle producers in Washington state, where the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the U.S. showed up in 2003 -- in a dairy cow imported from Canada.

Since then, authorities have been on red alert in an attempt to make sure that all precautionary measures are followed and that the mad cow nightmare is not repeated.

That's what makes this case so perplexing. That seven truckloads of cattle can be misdirected raises questions about how well those measures are followed.

Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said recently that he and his department are intent on getting to the bottom of this incident and working with other state departments, including the attorney general, to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I understand that not only my, but the department's, credibility is on the line with this issue," he said. "We understand the seriousness of it."

To its credit, Agri Beef Co., the large Boise, Idaho-based beef processor, came forward with an explanation of what happened and what was supposed to happen.

Agri Beef said last month that documentation related to the 198 spayed heifers and 204 steers incorrectly stated the destination to be the Agri Beef-owned El Oro feedlot in Moses Lake, Wash. Instead, the cattle went to a ranch near Northport, Wash., just over the border with Canada.

State regulations don't require the testing of cattle headed directly for a feedlot.

The processor has been forthcoming in accepting responsibility for its part of the problem.

"Clearly, we made a mistake," Agri Beef Executive Vice President Rick Stott told the Capital Press last month. "We're willing to make good on anything that would happen negatively for this reason. We're very willing and open to step up and take responsibility and make sure there's no impact to the cattlemen in and around that area."

What remains to be seen is whether the federal and state authorities take responsibility for whatever part they played and what they plan to do about it.

As authorities sort out this case, cattle producers look forward to a complete and thorough explanation -- and assurance that it won't happen again.


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