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,
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
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
"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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