Is it humane to keep water from beef cattle and other animals for 24 hours before they are slaughtered?

The Food Safety and Quality Service of the Agriculture Department wants to find out what "interested parties" think, because -- as you might suspect -- there's money riding on the answer.

After passage of the Humane Methods Slaughter Act, in 1978, rules under the federal meat inspection program were expanded to include provisions aimed at making the final hours of animals before slaughter more agreeable -- or at least enough to satisfy the people who worry about such things.

The new regulations, adopted Nov. 30, 1979, and in effect today, require water to be available in all holding pens at slaughterhouses for the animals when they arrive. In addition, if the animals are to be held more than 24 hours before slaughter, the rule is that they are to have feed in the pens.

After these humane rules went into effect, the nation's biggest meat packer, Iowa Beef Processors Inc., asked that it be permitted to withhold water from beef cattle for up to 24 hours before they're to be slaughtered.

It seems according to the company's position as described in the Sept. 19 Federal Register (page 62477), that there is a tradition in the cattle sales business of contracts that allow a "drying out" period before the animal is weighed and a final price set for the seller. It goes back to the days when some shrewd cattlemen got their herds loaded up with water just before they got on the scales. When the packers finally got around to seeing what they had up on the meat hook, the part that was water had vanished.

Most cattle are bought by packers at their weight at the time of sale and a standard "shrink allowance" calculated for water. Iowa Beef and at least some of the cattle sellers it deals with don't like that system and want to use the dry-out method.

Another group, the American Association of Meat Processors, which is made up of small packers, has a different kind of problem. Association members found it was just too difficult and costly putting water in their pens and noted that the pipes froze in winter.

Using a little animal psychology of its own, the association added that the confused animals on their way to slaughter won't "drink in strange surroundings unless they are extremely thirsty" and thus not having water on hand for the brief time before the ax falls, or knife cuts or hammer hits, is not mistreating them.

The agency has set Nov. 12 as the deadline for receiving comments before it makes the weighty decision on whether it is going to propose amending the current rule.

Send comments to Regulations Coordination Division, Attn: Annie Johnson, Food Safety and Quality Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Room 2637, South Agriculture Bldg., Washington, D.C. 20250.