The latest undercover investigation into the abuse of sick and crippled cows in the food production system has amplified the point that we need lawmakers who will take action to protect animal welfare and food safety. In New Mexico, where the latest abuses were discovered, there happens to be an especially sharp contrast between U.S. Senate candidates on this issue: Congressman Tom Udall (D-3rd) has supported common-sense policies to stop the processing of downer livestock and to require the immediate euthanasia of these suffering creatures, while Congressman Steve Pearce (R-2nd) has opposed these efforts.
In July 2003, the U.S. House voted on an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill that would have stopped the slaughter of downed animals for human consumption. The amendment lost by the narrowest of margins in a nail-biting vote of 199 to 202, with Udall in favor of the measure and Pearce against it. Just five months after Pearce and his cronies won the day to continue the processing of downed animals for food, a downed dairy cow tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington State—shaking consumer confidence and costing the meat industry billions of dollars in shuttered export markets.
Tom Udall is now a cosponsor of H.R. 661, the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act, which would help prevent the type of abuses that jolted the American conscience over and over again this year. The current downer scandal began in January when images of tormented cows killed for food at the Hallmark/Westland plant in Chino, Calif., led to the largest meat recall in the nation’s history. Then in the spring, downer cows were found languishing in pain for hours at livestock auctions in four states.
Now, an investigator from The Humane Society of the United States filmed the appalling abuse of spent dairy cows at the Portales Livestock Auction in Portales, N.M. Cows who were too weak or injured to stand up on their own were repeatedly shocked with electric prods, dragged by a chain around one leg, or kicked in the head. Three downed cows even made it into the auction ring and were sold into commerce. The story was covered by USA Today, the Associated Press, and other national media outlets.
The New Mexico Livestock Board is investigating the charges of cruelty, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Meat Institute, and others have condemned the activities that occurred at Portales. But the industry groups and government agencies must do more to prevent these abuses from taking place, not just critique them after the fact.
We need strong policies and aggressive enforcement to make sure the auctions, the stockyards, the slaughter plants, the haulers, and everyone else involved in food production knows they cannot get away with this appalling cruelty. When animal welfare and food safety are at stake, we must be extra vigilant. Downed cattle are more likely to carry foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli, and more than three-quarters of the cows testing positive for mad cow disease in North America have been downers.
According to the HSUS investigator at the site, dairy cows sold from Portales often went to Caviness Packing, a slaughter plant in Hereford, Texas, which distributes meat through its sister company, Palo Duro Meat Processing in Amarillo, Texas. Palo Duro is now the top supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program. It's impossible to know whether the cows abused at Portales ever made it any further in the food production system, but it raises great doubts about whether anyone is closely scrutinizing the 1,200 or so livestock auctions around the country.
It’s up to us to demand better. Tell your state and federal legislators and regulatory agencies to take immediate action. And help to elect candidates who understand that protecting the welfare of animals and the safety of our nation’s food supply are top priorities—much higher ones, in fact, than allowing big agribusiness to cut corners and squeeze out a few extra dimes of profit from these poor creatures.