On Feb. 27, the Humane Society 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 existing law, all cattle need to be inspected by the USDA prior to slaughter. Downers and those that go down between inspection and slaughter need to be cleared by a veterinarian before continuing to slaughter. The Humane Society said this second inspection is not happening in many cases. In fact, at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., 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 to give them the appearance of healthy, standing animals in order to pass inspection or, worse, taken to slaughter without the secondary inspection. This evidence holds the cattle handlers in violation of USDA regulations while also holding the USDA responsible for lack of effective inspection practices.
The evidence prompted a recall of 143 million pounds of beef, much of which entered the national school lunch program, bringing renewed attention to stalled legislation calling for changes to the regulations.
"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 in Washington D.C. "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 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 2007 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.
Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 9