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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Get Downers Out

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will close a gaping loophole in its regulation on processing sick and crippled cows for human consumption.

Downed cow pushed with forklift I’ve written here on the blog about The Humane Society of the United States’ slaughter plant investigation that led to the largest meat recall in American history. And the Humane Society Legislative Fund had rallied thousands of advocates for the cause of downed animal protection at our Party Animals events last month. Today’s news is a welcome move by USDA, even if long overdue, and we are grateful to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer for closing the loophole that has allowed downed animals to enter the food supply.

The agency still needs to promulgate the rule, and we hope it will do so immediately. A bright-line ban on processing downed cattle was in place from January 2004 to July 2007, until it was inexplicably weakened last year. The restoration and proper enforcement of that ban cannot come soon enough, and the agency should not drag its feet in doing so.

Further policy reforms are still needed, which the USDA or Congress can implement. The rule should include not just downed animals at the point of slaughter, but also at auctions and markets where HSUS investigators found animals, one after another, abandoned in parking lots and filthy pens to suffer for endless hours. These creatures should receive veterinary care or be humanely euthanized without delay. And the prohibition should apply not only to cattle, but also to pigs and other livestock who deserve the same protections from abuse when they cannot stand or walk on their own. The Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act would achieve these added protections, if they are absent from USDA’s action.

We also need more meaningful penalties for facilities that slaughter downed animals, and not just a temporary shuttering of the plant for an hour or two before it resumes business as usual. And we need basic animal welfare standards for food purchased through the National School Lunch Program and other federal programs, to raise the bar in the marketplace when our tax dollars are at work and our children are at risk.

A collection of bills in Congress—including the Downed Animal Enforcement Act, the Food Safety Recall Information Act, and the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act—are all needed to provide greater protections for animals and consumers. Lawmakers and advocates should take the USDA announcement as a welcome step forward, but keep pushing for measurable and critical advances.


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