Humane advocates have argued for years that the slaughtering of “downed” animals—those who are too sick or injured to walk on their own to slaughter—should be banned. There was another five-alarm call Wednesday, when The Humane Society of the United States released the results of an undercover investigation revealing that slaughter plant workers routinely tormented downed dairy cows in an attempt to get them to stand up—kicking them, jabbing them in the eye, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, and abusing them in other horrifying ways—and the beef from these animals is still entering the food supply, even the National School Lunch Program.
This very issue, in fact, has been playing out at the state and federal levels for quite some time. California several years ago passed a law banning the slaughtering of downed animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forbids the use of meat from non-ambulatory animals in the school lunch program. In the summer of 2003, the House rejected—by a nail-biting vote of 199 to 202—an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill offered by Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) which would have stopped the processing of all meat from downed animals. The Senate had accepted a similar amendment by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), but it was stripped in conference committee from the final bill.
During the House floor debate, proponents pointed to the inhumane handling of animals and data from Europe showing that downers were 49 to 58 times most likely to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”). Opponents of the measure such as former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas)—now a lobbyist for the horse slaughter industry—said that downed animals were treated humanely and the meat was perfectly safe.
Just six months later, after Christmas 2003, they were forced to eat their words, when a downer cow in Washington State tested positive for BSE, and 44 nations closed their borders to U.S. beef, costing the industry billions of dollars. Because they had insisted on squeezing out every last bit of profit from a suffering cow, they were penny-wise and pound-foolish. Since that time, twelve of the fifteen cows who tested positive for BSE infection in North America have reportedly been downers. It’s clearer than ever that downers are more likely to be sick or diseased, and pose a potential public health risk.
In light of this overwhelming evidence, the USDA issued a final ban on the processing of most downers in 2007. The regulation, however, has a gaping loophole: Cows who are able to walk when initially inspected by USDA but then keel over and cannot stand up again can nevertheless be slaughtered, and the meat can be sold. And USDA’s lax enforcement of the downer regulation has made its oversight virtually meaningless. USDA inspectors may only conduct cursory observations, coming to check on animals just once or twice a day and disregarding their condition for the remaining hours.
As the investigation released Wednesday demonstrates, the current system is not enough to safeguard against extreme cruelty to animals and potentially tainted meat being funneled to school children. It's like saying we are going to keep all the terrorists out of airports, but only operate the metal detectors once or twice a day--and after a person walks through a single time they can then come and go at their leisure.
Like any major battle in the animal protection movement, the downer issue has been hard-fought and is still unresolved. It requires constant vigilance for good public policies to be enacted and enforced. The USDA needs to tighten its regulations and enforcement of the downer ban, and needs to do a better job of protecting food safety in general.
Fortunately, the reaction to Wednesday’s investigative report has been swift on Capitol Hill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Majority Whip and one of the nation’s leading advocates for food safety, has written two letters to the USDA asking for an immediate investigation into the safety of ground beef being used in the National School Lunch Program. “The treatment of animals in this video is appalling, but more than that, it raises significant concerns about the safety of the food being served to our nation’s children,” Durbin said. “The apparent slaughter of sick and weak animals not only appears to violate USDA regulations, but could be a danger to our nation's food supply."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Chairwoman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee which oversees the funding for USDA, released a statement calling on the agency to investigate. She said, "It appears that USDA policies are allowing slaughtering and processing plants to use the National School Lunch Program as a dumping ground for bad meat. Because children are more vulnerable to becoming very ill and even dying from eating E. coli contaminated foods, we simply cannot continue to expose them to this risk."
Responding to the allegations of cruelty in her home state, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has sent two letters, one to the USDA urging swift action to close the loophole and make other needed changes, and one to California Attorney General Jerry Brown asking him to immediately initiate an investigation into "possible violations of state law that could endanger public health." She stated, "The videotape is even more concerning in light of the fact that meat processed from this facility is being used in school lunch programs and in programs for needy families and the elderly. Infants, children and the elderly are more likely to experience severe illness and hospitalization from E. coli and Salmonella than the rest of the population."
Rep. Ackerman has called on the USDA to investigate all beef slaughter plants to ensure that they are not slaughtering downed animals, and is calling on his colleagues to finally pass the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act. The bill will close the loopholes in the current agency rule and will protect all downed animals, not just cattle, from cruel and abusive treatment. “We are outraged and disgusted over the cruel abuses recorded at the Hallmark plant, and we fear that other beef slaughterhouses may still be processing downer cattle into the nation’s food supply in blatant violation of the law,” said Ackerman. “Congress and the American people need to urgently know the extent to which downer cattle are still being passed into America’s food chain.”
Sen. Akaka read a statement into the Congressional Record, describing the investigative video and also calling on lawmakers to pass the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act. "The video documents horrifying scenes of employees using electrical prods to shock animals, pulling them with chains, and carelessly driving over them with a forklift in an effort to bring sick or injured cows to their feet. These cruel actions amount to nothing less than torture. There was even a case of using a hose to forcibly spray water into a cow’s nose to get it to rise to its feet to avoid the sensation of drowning," he said. "The actions of this slaughterhouse, and possibly countless others, in violation of established laws, have put our most vulnerable and important assets in danger—our children."
New public policies are important as well. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Chris Shays (R-Conn.) are calling for enactment of the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act, which would require that all producers who sell meat, dairy, and egg products to the federal government meet a modest set of animal welfare standards. One of the requirements is that downed animals must be given veterinary care or humanely euthanized, rather than processed for slaughter. Any company that sells food to the school lunch program or other federal programs should ensure that animals get at least the most basic elemental humane handling. DeFazio captured what many of us felt upon seeing the graphic images: "I have been concerned about animal welfare since first coming to Congress, and I’ve heard some pretty gruesome tales," he said. "The video of how these animals were treated was abhorrent and shocking and I am ashamed that this could happen here in the United States."
We are grateful to these Congressional leaders for acting swiftly and forcefully to speak out for the protection of animals and food safety. Please take action today and help make sure that the public policy debate over downers comes to a close, and that no sick or injured animal ever again has to endure this torture for profit.