Every animal protection organization worth its salt has known that trafficking in "downed animals" is inherently inhumane. This moral question was brought to light in a dramatic way with The HSUS's Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. investigation—with large, ailing downed cows being tormented in the most barbaric and cruel ways to move them in the direction of the slaughter area.
© The HSUS
A cow is struck at Hallmark/Westland.
But as we saw the costs associated with this case roll up—the largest meat recall in the nation's history, the dissolution of Hallmark itself (a $100 million company), the strained U.S. trade relations with beef-purchasing nations, the further loss in consumer confidence in the food supply and the regulatory systems that oversee it—it has become obvious that mistreating downed animals does not make good economic sense, either. The industry was trying to squeeze more profits out of these hapless animals, but the costs of this practice far exceeded the profits from slaughtering sick and crippled cows. The accountants within the meat industry had to rise up eventually and trump the lobbyists and corporate kingpins.
Finally yesterday, some of the most recalcitrant forces within the livestock sector—the American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association, and the National Milk Producers Federation, which had long worked to keep legal a trade in downed cattle, thwarting repeated efforts for a ban in Congress—made an emphatic statement urging a complete ban on slaughtering downer cows. They're awfully late to the game, but their central role in the trade in downers makes their statement important and significant. But it's also not enough.
The Hallmark case has made it plain that a series of reforms are needed within the slaughter plant industry. It starts with a ban on downers. But we also need criminal penalties for egregious abuses—ramming animals with forklifts, jabbing them in sensitive areas with electric prods known as “hot shots,” dragging them with chains, subjecting them to high-pressure water hoses to simulate drowning, and the like. We also need more meaningful civil penalties for plants that are defying the law; the current enforcement tool of simply suspending the plant's slaughter lines for very short periods is not enough. And we need greater oversight and transparency, achieved in part through the use of video cameras in the off-loading and handling areas.
USDA had a "no downer" policy on the books from January 2004 through July 2007, but it subverted it with orders to its on-the-ground personnel to allow downers to be slaughtered. It was a thoroughly dishonest maneuver by the agency. Maybe under new Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer there will be an honest application of the law, if the USDA does indeed modify its current pro-downer policy and accede to the chorus of voices demanding a ban on the slaughter of all downer cattle. But there's no substitute for congressional action—the kind of comprehensive congressional action that constitutes a proportional response to the raft of policy and regulatory and industry "best practice" defects that came to light from the Hallmark investigation.
If a downer ban is the only significant policy outcome, then the nation will not have responded properly to Hallmark. Congress and the USDA must do more.