Oh My News | 26 June 2008
’Loophole’ Revealed in US Ban on Downer Cattle
Humane Society undercover investigation shows ill cattle being auctioned
Following release of an investigative video report by the Humane Society of the United States in February that depicted inhumane treatment of "downer" cattle at a processing facility in California, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in May that it would implement a ban on the slaughter for human consumption of cattle unable to stand and walk unassisted.
On June 25, the Humane Society released another investigative report showing extremely sick dairy cows being dragged and shocked in order to move them into the auction ring at the Portales Livestock Auction in Portales, New Mexico.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, said the investigator was working undercover at the Portales auction house when he shot video on separate weekends in May. The investigator said he witnessed three sick and abused cows sold to buyers at the auction.
When asked, Pacelle said the Humane Society had not tracked where the dairy cows were sent for processing and could not say for certain that they would be processed for consumption or if they would end up in export markets.
He said the mission of the Humane Society is to prevent cruelty to animals, but that the issues of animal cruelty and food safety cannot be isolated in these cases.
A USDA spokeswoman contacted after the press conference said she didn’t yet have an indication if the USDA would investigate the sale of the downer cattle videotaped at the auction.
Humane Society investigators have gone undercover at six locations in five states — the now closed Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant in Chino, Calif., and five livestock auctions, including the one in Portales, New Mexico.
"No longer can anyone in government or industry reasonably claim that the abuses we documented at Hallmark were an aberration or an isolated case," said Pacelle. "This gross mistreatment of spent dairy cows should turn your stomach, and they have been uncovered in location after location."
The investigative video report released by the Humane Society in February of this year depicted inhumane treatment of sick animals at a processing facility that was the second largest supplier of ground beef to US public schools.
Faced with fears that those sick animals had entered the food supply, the USDA recalled 143 million pounds of frozen beef. More than one-third of the recalled beef had gone to school lunch programs, the USDA said on Feb. 22. Some was eaten, some was successfully recalled and some were unaccounted for, officials said at the time.
According to USDA data, downed cattle are 58 times more likely to carry mad cow disease than other cattle. Downed cattle also are more likely to carry other food-borne illnesses like E. coli and Salmonella.
Before making its report public, the Humane Society met with Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to brief him on the latest abuses and renew its position that the USDA immediately implement a clearly defined rule prohibiting the processing of any downed cattle for food.
The Humane Society also urged the USDA to extend the prohibition on downers to the 1,200-plus livestock markets and auctions that operate around the nation, and require that operators of those facilities and slaughter plants immediately humanely euthanize downer cattle upon identifying them in a non-ambulatory state.
During the time covered by the investigation, New Mexico brand inspectors were present at the auctions and apparently witnessed the abuse, according to Pacelle. The Humane Society also provided information on the investigation to the New Mexico Livestock Board as well as to national industry leaders.
"The abuses of these suffering creatures must be stopped, to protect both animal welfare and food safety," Pacelle said.
Several members of Congress have expressed concern over the treatment of downer cattle in recent weeks and urged the USDA to move quickly on regulatory changes.
In a May 23 letter [PDF] to Schafer, four Congress members called it:
"Unworkable and reckless to rely on inspectors being summoned back by slaughter facility workers to re-evaluate downers on a case-by-case basis. Even if workers comply (as they clearly did not at the Hallmark slaughter facility featured in the recent undercover investigation that shocked the nation), determining why an animal is non-ambulatory is challenging if not impossible for inspectors because injury and illness are often interrelated — a broken leg may simply be the observable result of the weakness, abnormal gait, or disorientation associated with an underlying disease. At least three of the documented cases of BSE in North America were identified as downers due to injury, not illness, showing how difficult it is for inspectors to reliably sort out which non-ambulatory animals are ’safe.’"
Reps. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.; Christopher Smith, R-N.J.; Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., asked the USDA to close the downer loophole immediately, May 23, 2008.