By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said yesterday that his department wants to ban all "downer" cattle from the slaughterhouse to boost public confidence in the safety of the nation's food supply.
The proposal, which could take effect within a few months, follows the largest beef recall in U.S. history earlier this year, which was the result of secretly recorded videotape that showed California meat plant workers using forklifts and electric prods on animals unable to stand in an effort to get them to the slaughterhouse.
"There should be no longer even a slim possibility of transporting a cow to market that is too weak to rise or to walk on its own," Schafer told reporters. "This action sends a clear message to consumers in both domestic and in international markets that we will continue to uphold the highest standards to protect our food supply and deliver the highest-quality products."
Schafer also said that "by reducing the incentive to send weak and marginal cattle to slaughter, it will reduce the likelihood that those animals will be subjected to inhumane handling at processing plants."
Under current regulations, cows that cannot stand or walk on their own are supposed to be kept out of the food supply, in part because they may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
An exception allows a government veterinarian to approve for slaughter an animal that passed initial inspection but went down before reaching the "knock box," if a second inspection determines the animal is not sick but is suffering from an acute injury such as a broken leg. The USDA plans to propose a rule that would end the exception.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee and a proponent of a downer ban, applauded the decision.
"A strictly enforceable downer ban will eliminate confusion and move the ball forward on food safety and humane standards, while restoring consumer faith in a vital American sector," said Kohl, who held a hearing on Feb. 28.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, welcomed the ban but said it should take effect immediately.
In January, Pacelle's group released video footage showing workers at the Westland/Hallmark Meat plant in Chino, Calif., administering electric shocks and high-intensity water sprays to cows too sick or weak to stand without assistance. The video was taken by an undercover investigator for the group who worked at the plant last year. In February, USDA officials ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of beef processed by the facility, which has since closed.
"Even one downer cow with mad cow disease or some other serious malady has the potential to cause illness or death for people who consume the meat," Pacelle said.
The meat industry, long opposed to a total ban, announced in April that it had asked the USDA to enact one, in part to help pry open foreign markets to U.S. beef.
"We appreciate the department's prompt response and timely action," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute.
Schafer, who previously had said that a total ban was unnecessary, likened his change of heart to a business decision. Enacting a complete ban would boost consumer confidence while having little effect on slaughterhouses, he said. Of the 34 million cows slaughtered in 2007, fewer than 1,000 could not stand but were admitted to the slaughterhouse after a second inspection.
"This is not a food safety issue. It never has been," he said. "There has been some confusion here in the consumers' mind, in the media's mind. . . . We are trying to eliminate any confusion."
In 2003, concerns about the safety of U.S.-produced beef rose dramatically after the discovery that a slaughtered downer cow in Washington state was infected with BSE. At least 44 countries subsequently closed their borders to U.S. beef for varying periods of time.
In January 2004, then-USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced a ban on meat from all downer cattle. But later that month, the agency created the downer exception in written guidance to its veterinary medical officers. The exception was codified in a final rule in 2007.