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Thursday, August 28, 2008

More Bite, Less Bark Needed to Stop Farm Animal Cruelty

Downer_2Yesterday, nearly seven months after The Humane Society of the United States exposed the appalling abuse of sick and crippled cows at a southern California slaughter plant, which led to the largest meat recall in history, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally took steps to initiate a complete ban on the slaughtering of downed cattle for human consumption. The proposed rule is a long time coming, but brings us one step closer to closing a loophole in federal policy that has jeopardized animal welfare and food safety.

The USDA has not been the only agency to take action in response to the cattle abuse scandal this year. After The HSUS revealed that downed cows were being tormented not only at the point of slaughter, but also at intermediate auctions and livestock markets across the country, the Maryland Department of Agriculture carefully investigated an appalling case of abandonment and mistreatment at the Westminster Livestock Auction Market. A downer cow was left for dead in the mid-afternoon, and the auction house left her there overnight, even after the auction ended. Her misery ended only the next day after an HSUS undercover investigator called the local humane society to come out to dispatch the animal with a firearm. 

The state agency filed charges in the case for the mistreatment of the cow, but went a step further and immediately revised its own procedures regarding livestock auctions, to ensure that the situation found at Westminster is not repeated. Too often, the animals at auctions and other mid-points between farm and slaughter fall into regulatory limbo, but Maryland officials rightly recognized that consumers and animals deserve better.

Some meat and dairy trade groups are taking notice as well. The American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association, and the National Milk Producers Federation have all endorsed a strong ban on the slaughtering of downer cattle. This type of industry self-examination is sorely needed and demonstrates thoughtful and pragmatic leadership.

It seems, though, that some in the industry haven’t gotten the memo. The New Mexico Livestock Board and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association have found that finger-pointing is easier than self-examination—despite the fact that abuses have been uncovered at two of the state’s livestock auctions, in both Clovis and Portales. Instead of addressing the problems that have allowed such mistreatment of downed cattle to occur over and over again, they prefer to repeatedly criticize The HSUS for how it conducted its investigations and how it released the results.

I flew to Albuquerque in June and personally met with leaders of the New Mexico Livestock Board, to give them an advance report on the HSUS investigation at the Portales Livestock Auction, five days before those results were made public. They had time to get out in front of the issue and stand side by side with animal advocates and meat industry leaders who want better standards for the humane handling of farm animals, but it was only later—after public pressure and media attention—that they even bothered to investigate.
This is the same agency, mind you, that has been under fire in the local press for failing to respond to calls concerning injured and dying animals. A couple weeks ago, it took the board a full day to get to a horse who was starving to death. Just this week, a pig died because state inspectors didn’t respond in time when calls came in for assistance with the injured pig found on the side of a road with his legs tied up. What better way to mask a culture of indifference than to take aim at the messenger?

There are certain folks within the industry who simply dislike The HSUS and attack it rather than examine the problems that have been brought to light. The fact is, HSUS investigators have uncovered appalling abuses at all six locations it has investigated so far this year—the Hallmark slaughter plant in Chino, Calif., and five livestock auctions in four states, including two in New Mexico. Lightning shouldn’t strike six times, and it’s time for laggards in the industry to acknowledge the problems, particularly with the humane handling of spent dairy cows.

While they repeat the tired mantra about HSUS investigators taking pictures of cruelty rather than jumping in to save the day, let me be clear: The HSUS is not a law enforcement agency, and state and federal regulators shouldn’t abrogate their animal welfare and food safety responsibilities to private charities. There are thousands of slaughter plants and livestock auctions in the United States, and animal protection groups cannot monitor all of them all the time, nor should they. Our government must have functioning regulatory and enforcement systems in place that prevent these abuses, and the industry should exhibit its own level of responsible care.

The goal of The HSUS’ undercover investigators is not to intervene on a case by case basis, but to identify broader problems and call for policy changes that can help correct industry-wide gaps in the system. And when investigators do point out abuses to livestock auction staff and state inspectors on site, they are typically ignored and it’s back to business as usual.

Despite the heated rhetoric, the New Mexico Livestock Board did the right thing and took some action in response to the HSUS investigation in Portales, and cited one incident of cruelty to animals stemming from the use of a chain to drag a cow. Myles Culbertson, executive director of the board, discussed the broader problems in his final report, stating that:

…the incident does offer the opportunity for the industry to re-examine its supply chain and the role of livestock markets in it. The livestock market is a key component and step prior to slaughter and processing of cattle. Proper culling practices at the herd are necessary and must be observed in order that only healthy, useful cattle are presented to those markets. The livestock markets should not be treated as drop-offs for unmarketable livestock, even in the knowledge that they will not enter the food chain. Such animals should be humanely dealt with at the farm, ranch, or dairy. Good management practices (GMPs) must be the norm for the source operations as well as for the livestock markets. In the case of downers and other unmerchantables, policies and practices must be in place at the livestock markets for immediate decisions concerning the choice between veterinary care and euthanasia.

It is also important to recognize that basic initial knowledge of livestock handling is increasingly rare among potential livestock market employees. Proper training must take place in order for workers to effectively carry out their duties with sufficient understanding of, and attention to, the requirements for humane treatment of animals in their charge. Training and education must be a primary responsibility of the operator of the livestock market.

Take all the pot shots you want, but if it results in better policies and procedures for the humane treatment of animals, then it’s a worthwhile exercise. And amidst all the sniping over the timing of The HSUS’ release of its investigations and how the organization decides to spend its resources, one central fact cannot be drowned out by the shouting—that the most basic humane handling standards are being violated wherever HSUS investigators look. When state agencies finally stop micro-analyzing The HSUS’ actions and start treating cruelty to farm animals with the gravity it deserves, only then will the outliers within the industry be held accountable.


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