USDA Bans Slaughter of Downers After Mad Cow Finding

cows_tagged_field_alOne week after the first confirmed case of mad cow disease was reported in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a ban on the slaughter and sale of nonambulatory cattle for food.

The ban was announced on Tuesday, December 30 2003, after a barrage of media coverage and an outpouring of public concern.

For The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups that have lobbied against the slaughter of “downers”—animals too sick or injured to move—for over a decade, the ban represents a major triumph. “This is a great victory in the fight to implement more humane treatment for millions of farmed animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of The HSUS.

The ban followed Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman’s announcement on December 23 that an immobile Holstein in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease.

According to USDA estimates, between 130,000 and 190,000 downed animals are sent to processing plants annually—about three quarters of whom are processed for human food. Veneman noted that about 20,000 downers were tested this year, approximately 10%–15% of the total sent to processing plants.

Despite Veneman’s assurance that downers would be tested, The HSUS called for an immediate ban on the slaughter or marketing of meat from downed animals.

In a December 24 letter to the agriculture secretary, Pacelle argued for an immediate ban on the processing of downers, calling the connection between downed animals and mad cow disease “undeniable.” He urged that to allow the continued processing of such diseased animals for human consumption would be “reckless and irresponsible.”

After a week of breaking news stories and an outpouring of e-mail, letters, and phone calls to the agriculture secretary, the USDA took decisive action with Veneman’s announcement that “USDA will ban all downer cattle from the human food chain.” While a number of states already restrict the movement of downers at state-licensed facilities, the newly-announced federal ban will apply in all states and at all federally-inspected slaughterhouses. These facilities handle the vast majority of animals slaughtered in the United States.

At least 200,000 farm animals become downers every year. The ban on the slaughter and sale of downed animals may force livestock owners to treat their animals more humanely, so that they do not become nonambulatory to begin with. Those animals who do become too sick or injured to walk on their own will no longer have to suffer the cruelty of being hauled, beaten, or pushed with bulldozers to the killing floor.

“We are delighted with Secretary Veneman’s emphatic declaration that downed cattle are unfit for human consumption and will not be channeled into the human food supply,” Pacelle said. “This decision also means that these animals will no longer be inhumanely treated by being dragged by chains or bulldozers to get them to slaughter.”

Veneman’s December 23 announcement marked the first time the brain-wasting disease, known officially as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has ever appeared in the United States. The news raised the question of whether the United States has adequate safeguards to insure that the meat from potentially diseased downers does not enter the food supply.

Congress grappled with the downer issue earlier this year. In November, the Senate passed an amendment, advanced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), to the Agriculture Appropriations bill, which would have prevented meat from slaughtered downers from entering the food supply. When the House narrowly rejected a similar amendment by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), it set up a battle in conference committee, which ultimately jettisoned the provision.

The discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, however, may have a devastating economic impact. By December 30, dozens of countries—Japan, Russia, Australia, and Mexico among them—had already halted imports of U.S. beef. Earlier this year, when a downed animal in Canada was discovered to have BSE, the news caused a large number of countries, including the United States, to ban Canadian beef imports. Canada reportedly lost $1 million a day following the bans.

The Holstein in question was located on a farm in Mabton, Washington, about 40 miles southeast of Yakima. The downed animal tested positive for BSE on December 22—13 days after the animal had been sent to slaughter.

When mad cow disease first appeared in Britain in the mid-1980s, dozens of humans contracted a form of the disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), after eating tainted meat. More than 140 people have died in Britain from the disease.


Senate Passes Downed Animal Act, Sets Up Showdown with House
Source note: On December 9, the Downed Animal Protection Act was stripped from the Agriculture Appropriations bill in a conference committee. Despite this setback, the legislation may still be taken up by Congress when it reconvenes in January, amid concerns about mad cow disease appearing in the United States. Fears about humans contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) from eating tainted meat may spur Congress to move forward on eliminating downed animals from being slaughtered for food.

When the U.S. Senate passed the Downed Animal Protection Act in November, the chamber set up a conference-committee battle with the House, which earlier in the year narrowly defeated an amendment that would protect farm animals who are too weak, sick or injured to stand or walk.

The Senate passed the act on November 5 as an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill; in July, despite 123 co-sponsors, the House did not pass the amendment on its own Agriculture Appropriations bill. The House version failed with a 199–202 vote. S. 1298 and H.R. 2519 are sponsored by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY) respectively.

This means the Senate and House will have to come together in a conference committee to iron out the differences. If they can not agree on a version, the entire bill will die, but because this is an appropriations bill, that is less likely to happen. When the conference committee has agreed on a version, the bill will be presented again to both chamber floors. Both must pass identical versions before the bill can be sent to President Bush for consideration.

If passed and signed into law as part of the appropriations bill, the act will take effect one year after enactment.

Downed animals (also known as “downers”) are routinely sent to auctions and packing plants, where they endure cruel handling and neglect. They are often kicked, beaten, shocked, trampled, and dragged with ropes or chains; they are left without food, water, shelter, or veterinary care until they die or are trucked to slaughter. The animals are not euthanized because they are worth more money if they reach slaughter alive.

The Downed Animal Protection Act would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from approving meat from slaughtered downers. Downed animals would then not be allowed to enter the human food supply. This would create a financial incentive for farmers and handlers to treat their charges better, so that the animals do not become downers in the first place. In addition, downers would have to be humanely euthanized.

There are obvious human health concerns regarding eating meat from downed animals. The single cow in Alberta, Canada that was diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (commonly known as “mad cow disease”) was a downed cow. When humans eat meat tainted with mad cow disease, they can develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). As of April 2, 2002 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 125 cases of vCJD in the world. To date, there are no reported cases in the United States.

“While the U.S. Senate passing the Downed Animal Protection Act is a tremendous win for animal advocates, there still is much to do before the law can go into effect,” said Dr. Michael Appleby, vice president of The HSUS’s Farm Animals and Sustainable Agriculture section. “Precedent has been set with state laws in Oregon, California, Colorado, and Illinois, which protect both animals and humans. Now our Representatives need to follow their lead.”


Get the Facts on Downers
Despite policy statements and promises by some livestock industry groups, downers—animals too sick or injured to stand or walk—continue to be mishandled in livestock markets nationwide.
Non-ambulatory animals are routinely pushed, kicked, dragged, and prodded with electric shocks at auctions and intermediate markets to move them along to the slaughterhouse. The mistreatment of these animals can be found even in brief, random visits to livestock markets across the nation.

The Humane Society of the United States believes that a “No Downer” policy should be established at all intermediate markets. We support passage of H.R. 1421/S. 267, the Downed Animal Protection Act, which would make it unlawful for any stockyard owner, market agency, or dealer to transfer or accept non-ambulatory livestock.

Reasons for a “No Downer” Approach

Mainstream livestock industry groups and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) agree that downed animals should never be sent through intermediate livestock markets. Some industry groups even take the position that downed animals should not be permitted to leave the farm. The obvious suffering of downers, coupled with the increased risk of tainted food from sick or downed animals, makes humane euthanasia the most reasonable solution. In fact, the Livestock Marketing Association has warned stockyards against accepting downed animals because of legal and economic liabilities.

A “No Downer” approach would address the following issues :

Poor resources: Stockyards are not currently equipped to care for and humanely handle downed animals.

Prevention: According to industry sources, 75–90% of downers are preventable.

Animal husbandry: A “No Downer” policy removes the incentive for hauling these animals to stockyards and shifts the emphasis to improving management and handling practices.

The costs: Fewer federal dollars would be needed to monitor a “No Downer” policy than would be required to institute, monitor, and enforce guidelines for moving downed animals through livestock markets.

Public relations and public safety: A “No Downer” policy would send an important message to the public about the industry’s commitment to humanely handling animals and eliminating unnecessary food safety risks.
It’s important for the federal government to set the “No Downer” policy. A federal solution would establish a uniform standard across all states and remove any incentives or unfair advantages for stockyards that would continue to accept downers vs. those that would implement a “No Downer” policy.

Once animals become downers, it makes sense to euthanize them or proceed swiftly to slaughter in order to avoid not only any deterioration of their condition but also any potential pathogenic contamination of their meat. In fact, part of the reason the livestock industry applauds voluntary “No Downer” policies is because it sees the effort as an important step in expanding quality assurance programs.

Self-Regulation Isn’t Working
Despite industry attempts at self-regulation, negligence or abusive handling of downed animals has continued in many intermediate markets. The HSUS and other animal protection groups have documented this problem and have repeatedly presented the evidence to the livestock industry and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Concern over the mishandling of downers has been voiced over the past decade by animal welfare groups, livestock industry experts, and the public. Despite pledges to address the situation, the mistreatment persists.

A company called United Stockyards was the focus of a 1991 investigation into its abusive handling practices, and was featured on the NBC television program “Exposé”. Under heavy public pressure, the company pledged to adopt a “No Downer” policy. One year later, Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization, found three of seven United Stockyards facilities handling downers, including one animal who was left to die in a dumpster. Despite the company’s standing as an industry leader and its awareness of heightened public scrutiny, United Stockyards was unable to self-regulate.

Risks to Animals—and Food Safety
With the concern over Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)—known as mad cow disease— and other food safety issues, the problem of downers being bought, sold, transferred, or transported prior to slaughter now carries an even more serious threat to consumer health. Animal protection organizations and many in the livestock industry already agree that a strict “No Downer” policy is the solution. The American public certainly expects nothing less from the industry than to eliminate unnecessary food safety risks, and to protect animals from needless suffering.

Source - HSUS, the Humane Society of the United States
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