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Humane Society files suit against USDA over "downer" cows in food supply

On Feb. 27, the Humane Society of the United States filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to close a loophole that allows sick and disabled cattle — also called "downer" cows — to enter the nation's food supply in an effort to improve food safety and demand more humane treatment of cattle.

Under the existing law, any animal standing and apparently in good health during an initial USDA inspection can be slaughtered, but cows that become ill following initial inspection need the approval of a certified veterinarian before continuing to slaughter. According to the Humane Society, this second inspection does not always happen, as was the case at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., where the Humane Society captured video of cows being shocked with electric prods, hosed in the face with water, rolled with forklifts and dragged with chains in order to give them the appearance of healthy, standing animals in order to pass inspection or just taken to slaughter without a followup inspection (

The evidence prompted a recall of 143 million pounds of beef, much of which entered the school lunch program, bringing renewed attention to two articles of legislation calling for changes to the regulations that have been stuck in Congress for the past three years.

"It's important for retailers to know that the USDA allows some crippled cows to go into the food supply," said Paul Shapiro, head of the factory farming campaign at the Humane Society. "And this is not only a tremendous animal welfare concern because these animals are treated cruelly, but it also carries food safety concerns because downer cows are more likely to have E. coli and mad cow disease. There should be a blanket policy prohibiting all downer cattle from entering the food supply and they should be humanely euthanized immediately."

Shapiro said that the majority of mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) cases in the United States have been from downer cows. In January 2004, following the first case of BSE, the USDA placed an immediate ban on downer cows in the food supply, a decision it reversed in July 2004, resulting in the current veterinary-check loophole.

"We are hoping that this [suit] will get that ball rolling, and that Congress will act in rapid fashion to pass the "Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act" to close the loophole, and that this lawsuit will become moot," Shapiro said.??

However, last week, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told Congress that while he is investigating the mistreatment of animals following the recent exposure in California, he will not endorse a ban on downer cows entering the food supply, and proposed more random inspections of slaughter houses over stiffer penalties for violations.

Shapiro said that concerned retailers and distributors can insist on a contractual agreement with suppliers to receive only beef from facilities that do not slaughter downer cattle.

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