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US: Slaughter Ban Is Implemented
On Cows Too Sick, Weak to Stand

by Associated PressWall Street Journal
May 20th, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced Tuesday a total ban on meat plant slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand.

The planned change comes in the wake of the nation's largest beef recall. It would shut down an exception -- which critics call a loophole -- that allows a small number of so-called "downer" cattle into the food supply if they pass veterinary inspection.

Downer cows pose increased risk for mad cow disease and other infections, partly because they typically wallow in feces. They are already mostly banned from slaughter, but under current rules can be allowed in if they fall down after passing an initial veterinary inspection, and then are re-inspected and pass that second inspection, too.

Some lawmakers and the Humane Society of the United States have lobbied Mr. Schafer to eliminate that exception, and the meat and dairy industry last month reversed its opposition and endorsed the change too.

Mr. Schafer announced the planned new rule at a meeting with reporters following a 60-day review of conditions at the nation's slaughterhouses. The department plans to expedite publication of the rule and hopes to finalize it within several months.

The review was prompted by a 143 million-pound beef recall in February, ordered after the Humane Society released undercover video showing plant employees abusing downer cows at Chino, Calif.-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. At the Chino plant, downer cows were forced to slaughter without the required second veterinary inspection, which is why the recall was ordered.

Mr. Schafer said that no such violations have been found at other slaughterhouses. He said the rule change was not being done for public health reasons but should increase consumer confidence by eliminating confusion about why some downed cows were being allowed into the food supply.

"I don't think we can justify the confusion that takes place in the consumer's mind," Mr. Schafer said.

He also said the change should increase humane handling of cows by cattle producers and slaughterhouses "as there will no longer be any market for cattle that are too weak to rise or walk on their own."

The change would affect a small number of cows. Out of 34 million cows slaughtered in 2007, about 2,700 fell down after the initial veterinary inspection and were re-inspected, Mr. Schafer said. Of those, less than 1,000 were then approved to go to slaughter, he said. Mr. Schafer's announcement was welcomed on Capitol Hill, where legislation to enact a total downer ban has been proposed in the House and Senate.

"A strictly enforceable downer ban will eliminate confusion and move the ball forward on food safety and humane standards, while restoring consumer faith in a vital American sector," said Sen. Herb Kohl, who chairs the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee. Kohl called the move a "significant step toward restoration of the rule as it was intended to protect American families, retailers and the beef industry itself."

In 2004, the USDA tightened regulations to prohibit the slaughter of downer cows after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state. But in finalizing the rule last year, the department created the exception allowing the re-evaluation of cattle that fall down after they pass initial inspection.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press

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