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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Crippled Cows Need Protection at Every Step of their Journey

The Humane Society of the United States yesterday released the next wave of its groundbreaking investigation into rampant mistreatment of sick and crippled cows. Last time, the downed animals were tormented and processed at a California slaughter plant for the National School Lunch Program. But now, there is evidence that animals are too weak to stand up or walk at earlier points in the process: the livestock auctions and half-way stops between farm and slaughter. 

281x144_cow1_2 Since the Hallmark/Westland case broke in January, there have been eight congressional hearings on downed animals and food safety issues, more than 150 million pounds of meat recalled, and two new bills introduced to address the abuses. Now, congressional reaction once again has been swift in response to the problems found at livestock auctions in Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer urging the agency to conduct an industry-wide investigation into the animal cruelty at auctions and stockyards. “This is further evidence that oversight to ensure the humane treatment of animals destined for our food supply is inadequate,” she said. “Food animals should never be subject to the kind of horrible acts as witnessed in these videos and reported by concerned citizens.” Sen. Feinstein previously introduced legislation to provide more meaningful penalties for facilities that slaughter downed animals.

The chairwoman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also weighed in strongly. “Given the continued revelations about the abuse of downer cows—this time in our livestock auctions and stockyards—it is clear that this is a systemic problem. Unfortunately, preventing animal cruelty, and preventing animals at greater risk for food-borne illnesses from entering the food supply, does not appear to be a USDA priority.” Rep. DeLauro is the author of the Food Safety Recall Information Act, which would further address the problems highlighted by the downed animal investigation and beef recall.

And the co-author of the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., called for further protections for farm animals. “The humane treatment of animals speaks to our nation’s core values, and this cruelty reflects poorly on our country as a whole,” he said. “Our government can have a tremendous impact in encouraging improved treatment of animals by requiring producers to meet basic federal animal welfare requirements.”

The Humane Society Legislative Fund is grateful to these legislative leaders for speaking out. In fact, it’s not the first time lawmakers have asked USDA to look into this very problem. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress directed the USDA to investigate the question of downed animals at livestock auctions and markets—including the scope of problems, the causes, and the resulting cruel treatment of animals—and to follow up with “regulations to provide for the humane treatment, handling, and disposition of nonambulatory livestock by stockyards, market agencies, and dealers.”

Now that Congress is wrapping up another Farm Bill six years later, further action is needed to address these cruelties that have come to light. While the USDA has a presence at slaughter plants, no one is watching or taking responsibility for the animals at auctions before they are sent to slaughter. These animals fall into regulatory limbo, and we need to do better as a country to protect animal welfare and food safety.

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