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March 14, 2009

Case Finally Closed on "Downers" Loophole

It’s been a long fight, and today, we closed another chapter on it. Since the mid-1990s, The HSUS has been working hard to stop as a matter of public policy the abuse of downer cattle—animals too sick or injured to walk. And today, President Obama himself announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was officially putting a stop to non-ambulatory cattle being mishandled in order to get them into slaughter plants. He made the announcement along with two top selections for the Food and Drug Administration and a series of other statements about food safety.

We’ve had two major crises that validated The HSUS’s long-standing admonition that the federal government and the cattle industry were reckless and inhumane in allowing sick and crippled cows into the food supply. In December 2003, a downer cow tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington state, and a national and international furor ensued. More than 50 nations in short order closed their markets to U.S. beef, and the federal government tried in vain to recall meat that was linked to the animal with the fatal neurological disease, which is transmissible to people. A recent government report said the economic fall-out of that single finding of a BSE-positive downer cow was $11 billion. So it was not a trifling matter by any means, as a food safety or economic issue.

In the wake of that incident, former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman—President’s Bush first Agriculture Secretary—announced an immediate ban on the slaughter of downer cattle, in order to quell the concern of consumers and trading partners. But USDA, under her successor Mike Johanns, quietly weakened the rule very soon after it was promulgated, allowing some downer cattle to be slaughtered, if they were ambulatory on first inspection and then went down later. That weakened downer policy was made final in mid-2007, though it had been in effect for several years since Veneman announced the no-downer policy. In short, if cattle went down after passing first inspection by USDA personnel, then they could be approved for slaughter on down the line.

See the video report from HSUS investigation into abuse of downed dairy cows
Our investigation thrust a global spotlight on abuse of downed cows.

This tremendously damaging loophole provided cover to unscrupulous slaughter plants to keep downer cattle moving into the food system and giving them an incentive to accept downers at slaughter plants in the first place.

And that’s the precise attitude that triggered the second crisis. The HSUS sent one of its investigators into a medium-sized slaughter plant in Chino, Calif., which specialized in the killing of spent dairy cows. At this cull plant, as it was known, our investigator found downer cows—at all stages of the handling and pre-slaughter process—being tormented to get them to stand and then walk toward the kill box. Plant workers—two of them later convicted of animal cruelty charges—were seen on video ramming downer cows with forklifts, applying electric “hot shots” in sensitive body parts like the eyes or genitals, and even using high-pressure water hoses in their mouths, all in order to cause the animals so much distress that they would try to stand and get away from their tormentors. They would torture the cows before the USDA inspectors arrived, in order to show them that the cows were standing.

Like the 2003 BSE case, these findings whipped up a storm of protest and angst. The $110 million-a-year plant voluntarily shut down operations, and then USDA officially closed the plant's doors. School lunch programs, which got tens of millions of pounds of meat from this cull slaughter plant (it was the second largest supplier to the National School Lunch Program), then started pulling the meat from their shelves in 47 states, and parents across the nation panicked. USDA then initiated the largest meat recall in American history—143 million pounds—and retailers starting pulling meat from the shelves, too. The first of eight Congressional hearings were launched. And there were international effects. There were riots in the streets of South Korea—which is, with Japan, among the two largest American beef importers—with tens of thousands of people protesting the resumption of imports of American beef. They took to the streets after seeing the Chino footage, and riot police were unable to quell the dissent.

Former Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who succeeded Johanns and took office the day before we released the Chino footage, initially handled the situation in a decisive way by launching an investigation and urging the recall. But he hedged on making a decision to ban all downer cattle in the food supply. Then, more than three months after the Chino facts came to light—and after several meat industry groups announced they’d support a no-downer policy—he announced USDA would take action. But we waited and waited for final action, with the rule being held up in the bureaucracy of the USDA and perhaps also at the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The Bush team left Washington eight months after Schafer announced a change in policy would be forthcoming, and the rule was still not instituted.

The Obama team, led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, did not dither. With Obama’s radio address today, they’ve announced the implementation of a no-downer policy within the first 50 days of taking office. I say it’s about darn time that the federal government took action. No sensible policy like this should have ever taken this long to enact—more than 15 years. And there is a long line of lawmakers and other federal officials and industry actors who share the blame in allowing this economically disastrous policy to have persisted. It was bad for animals, but it was also terrible for industry. It was a penny-wise and pound-foolish policy, and the Hallmark investigation probably cost the industry billions of dollars as well.

But today, we celebrate the news. And we hope it is a harbinger of a far more serious attitude toward food safety and animal welfare from the new Administration. I am personally looking forward to working with Secretary Vilsack—a man of great integrity—on a wide range of issues. And I express my gratitude to him and his team today for his decisive action.

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