Greed vs. Good Sense
Yesterday was a big day for farm animals.
First, Californians for Humane Farms—a statewide ballot initiative committee that The HSUS helped to create—turned in to the state of California nearly 800,000 signatures in support of a prospective November 2008 petition to phase out veal and gestation crates and battery cages. Because we eclipsed our goal of 650,000 total signatures by such a wide margin, the measure should easily qualify for the ballot. Kudos to the thousands of volunteer activists who spent so many hours gathering signatures at hundreds of locations throughout the state. We'll soon move into the persuasion phase of the campaign, urging voters to put a stop to cruel confinement practices that are so severe that calves and pigs cannot even turn around and hens can't even extend their wings in their enclosures. It's going to be a multimillion-dollar battle, and we'll need your help. Lots of it. We'll only win if we mount a massive grassroots effort to reach every voter in the state.
Second, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture Appropriations held a hearing focused exclusively on the issues raised by The HSUS's investigation into the Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. of Chino, Calif. I testified, along with newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle (you can read the testimonies and watch the hearing here).
In his opening remarks and in the questioning of witnesses, Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) called for a "bright line" ban on downed cattle in the food supply and the establishment of surveillance cameras at all slaughter plants throughout the United States. He, Sen. Tom Harkin, and other senators expressed great concerns about the gaps in humane handling of animals at slaughter plants and said that the American people expect more. “Why don’t you have a system that uncovers this inhumane treatment of animals?" asked Sen. Kohl of Secretary Schafer. Sen. Kohl asked the right questions, and had a raft of policy recommendations that he's vowed to press. I was particularly grateful to him and nearly all of the other senators present for praising The HSUS for its role in bringing the cruelty and food safety problems to public attention.
Secretary Schafer, who was only on his second day on the job when our slaughter plant investigation broke in the press on Jan. 30, has treated the issue with the seriousness that it deserves. After all, he initiated the biggest beef recall in American history in response to our findings. He, too, thanked The HSUS for bringing the facts to light.
However, he essentially argued that the USDA's humane handling and food safety systems are not broken, and that a few refinements in protocols should correct the situation. He said that the USDA would do more random checks, would audit the companies that supply the National School Lunch Program, and would step up enforcement efforts. But these measures fall unbelievably short of the mark. He resisted Sen. Kohl's call for a ban on downer animals, and he was skeptical of the need for new criminal penalties for violators of humane handling laws or for surveillance cameras at the slaughterhouses.
© The HSUS
A downed cow at Hallmark/Westland Meat Co.
There was nothing bold or imaginative offered yesterday by the USDA. Just the mantra that you can trust the agency. And that's just not good enough. There are serious issues raised by our investigation, and reforms must follow.
I had to ask during my testimony, "How many other major crises, recalls, and public scares will this nation tolerate before we adopt an unambiguous policy banning downer cattle in the food supply?" In December 2003, the American people collectively dropped their forks and knives when a downer cow slaughtered for human consumption tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington state. Consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply was more than rattled, and more than 40 nations closed their markets to American beef.
Now, we have a second major crisis related to downed animals, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why the industry won't support a no-downer policy and wipe away the problem of animals too sick or injured to walk getting into the food supply. Unfortunately, greed appears to be trumping good sense. Players within the industry are intent on squeezing every last dime out of downed animals and subjecting them to inhumane treatment to get them to the kill box. Their tolerance for the abuse of downers is morally repugnant and economically disastrous.
Most downers are supposed to be euthanized if they arrive in that condition at the slaughter plant. Or if they are down when they are inspected by a USDA veterinarian, they are also to be euthanized. But the USDA does allow downers to be slaughtered if they go down after they have first been inspected and approved by a veterinarian—that's the loophole we are concerned about.
I just don't understand the math of the meat industry. If USDA vets approve a few thousand downers for slaughter under this current system—bringing a pittance in profits from these hapless cows being monetized—is that really worth it when you consider the risks? When the Washington state mad cow case hit, the beef industry lost billions of dollars, just from the closing of its export markets alone. Now, with the Hallmark investigation, a $100 million company is likely to close permanently, the image of a safe food supply has been further eroded, and hundreds of companies have collectively lost millions of dollars because of the largest beef recall in American history—143 million pounds, and growing now because so much of the Hallmark/Westland meat was commingled and found its way into processed foods. All of this because the industry could not break the downer addiction.
Why not have a zero tolerance policy for downers at slaughter plants? That would improve humane handling of the animals on the farms, at auctions, and in transport, since it's extremely difficult to humanely move a 1,000-pound animal not capable of walking on his or her own. And such a policy would better safeguard the food supply, since downers have a greater likelihood of delivering pathogens into the American food supply.
I assure you that The HSUS will not relent in this fight. We are in it for the long haul.