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May 20, 2008

No Downers, No Exceptions

USDA did what it had to do today. It was a moral and economic imperative. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced that his agency would implement a no-downer policy for cattle in the United States. It is long-awaited but welcome news, and it's a direct reaction to the undercover hidden camera investigation The HSUS conducted at the Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant in Chino, Calif.

Downer cow at livestock auction
© The HSUS
A downer cow left to suffer at auction.

The Hallmark investigation—which probably ended up costing the meat industry and the federal government more than $1 billion—could not be ignored. It exposed major gaps in food safety and humane handling oversight, and a no-downer rule is where the policy reforms had to begin.

Secretary Schafer has been more than decent to deal with during the past three months. He's treated both HSUS investigations with the seriousness that they deserved. In fact, it was Schafer who decided to demand the largest meat recall in American history. We released the Hallmark investigation results the day after he was sworn in, so he's lived with the issue since he took the helm.

The loophole in the current rule, which allows USDA inspectors to approve downer cattle for slaughter if they've passed a first inspection, was a bad policy. It was driven by the greed of folks within the industry who wanted to squeeze every last dime out of animals too sick or injured to walk. The rule provided an incentive for cash-hungry farmers and dealers to bring ailing animals to slaughterhouses, and plant workers to try every imaginable cruel tactic to rouse downers, in the hopes that they would pass inspection. The evils we uncovered at Hallmark underscored these very problems.

Today's announcement is the fruit of many years' labor, for The HSUS has been committed to addressing the problem of downers for more than a decade, against steep odds. The inhumane handling of animals too weak, injured, or sick to walk is offensive, and has driven our concern and our determination to succeed.

We also know that even one downer cow with mad cow disease or some other serious malady has the potential to cause human illness or death, to prompt costly and wasteful recalls, to close export markets to American beef, to erode consumer confidence, and indeed to lead to businesses shutting down. In my view, it's been in the livestock industry's own interest to adopt this reform. Yet only recently did they come to understand the economics. Prior to that, they were acting penny wise and pound foolish.

We are grateful for Secretary Schafer's announcement today, but this time, the policy must be crafted and executed properly. (Listen to my remarks on the impending ban at a press conference I led this afternoon.)

  • USDA said it would take a couple of months to implement the rule, and we are concerned about this unnecessary delay. In 2004, after the first mad cow case in the United States came to light and set off a panic, USDA issued an emergency rule banning downers. Unfortunately, USDA immediately backpedaled and weakened the rule, but its authority to issue an emergency order was clear then and it's clear now. The agency should take immediate action, and not wait two or three months.
  • A ban on slaughtering downed cows is critically important policy, but it's not enough. We need specific federal criminal prohibitions for mistreatment of cattle and other livestock—such as repeated and sustained use of electric shock on animals, ramming them with heavy machinery, or using high-pressure water hoses in their mouths to simulate drowning. Right now, USDA sometimes suspends plant operations, but it doesn't take that action often enough or for a long enough period to be an effective deterrent. USDA needs other enforcement tools, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legislation (S. 2770), which requires the permanent shutdown of plants that are routine and chronic violators of federal humane handling laws.
  • A no-downer policy should apply to pigs and other livestock. That's what the legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), S. 394/H.R. 661, would do. Their legislation would also require the immediate humane euthanasia of downer animals and would apply to animals at intermediate markets, such as auctions and stockyards.
  • We also need video cameras installed at the plants, and USDA inspectors must review the videotape. At Hallmark, the plant workers got on their best behavior when inspectors were present, but abused the animals when inspectors weren't there. We need a mechanism for round-the-clock monitoring of animal handling.

Today's announcement is major news. But it's a step in the process, not the final word.

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