Mad cow case raises issue of slaughter

Meat of disabled animals called a disease threat

December 26, 2003|By Judy Pasternak | Judy Pasternak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The discovery of mad cow disease in a Washington state Holstein - confirmed yesterday by British veterinary pathologists - has focused new attention on whether animals too disabled to walk to slaughter should be banned from the U.S. food supply.

The animal that was tested had been flagged in the first place because it had been partially paralyzed, apparently after complications in delivering a calf, said W. Ron DeHaven, the Department of Agriculture's chief veterinarian.

The cow came from a dairy farm, where its career as a milk producer was over.

Animal welfare groups argue that such nonambulatory, or so-called downer, cows are more likely to carry or die from infectious diseases. They are calling on Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to bar them from meat-processing plants.

"Anything's on the table at this point," DeHaven said yesterday. Changing the way downers are handled, he added, is among "a number of things we might or might not do."

He declined to detail the measures under discussion.

The USDA noted this year that data from Europe, where mad cow disease previously emerged, indicate that downer cattle "have a greater incidence of BSE," or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the scientific name for mad cow disease.

The first known U.S. case of mad cow disease was announced Monday based on USDA tests in Ames, Iowa.

Samples were sent to a laboratory in Waybridge, England, that specializes in the disease. Scientists there agreed yesterday with the U.S. analysis of the Iowa test and expect to conduct further testing over the next several days.

Agriculture officials have stressed that they consider the health risk to consumers to be extremely low. The slaughterhouse that processed the diseased cow, Verns Moses Lake Meats of Moses Lake, Wash., voluntarily recalled 10,410 pounds of meat, all that was handled the day the animal was killed.

A case of mad cow disease surfaced in Canada in May. That animal also was unable to walk on its own. At that point, Consumers Union urged Veneman to "at a minimum" test all downed animals for the infectious disease, which can lead to a fatal illness in humans.

Animal rights groups estimate that of the 35 million to 40 million cattle slaughtered each year in the United States, 130,000 to 190,000 - about 1 percent - are sent to meatpackers because they've been disabled.

Cruelty and safety

The organizations originally began lobbying against using downers for meat because they were concerned about the cruelty of dragging the animals in chains or carrying them on forklifts to be killed.

But animal-welfare activists say they quickly began to worry about food safety as well.

Several states ban the use of downers in some slaughterhouses. The USDA decided three years ago to stop buying downer meat for the school lunch program because of concern about bacterial infections.

But efforts to enact a comprehensive national measure have been derailed in Congress by a few representatives, mostly from cattle states.

On the same day that the diseased Holstein was killed, a Senate-House conference committee tossed out language in the agriculture appropriations bill that would have prevented the use of downer cows for food.

"If we allow downed animals to be slaughtered, we are playing Russian roulette with the American food supply," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

But lawmakers arguing against the measure said that keeping downer cows from market would actually erode protections - because it is only at the slaughterhouse where animals are inspected for mad cow disease.

Separate bills that focus solely on a downer-cow ban have also been introduced in both the Senate and House.

`Credible threat'

Last week, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit that contends that the government's policy on downer animals does not protect enough against mad cow disease. The suit was filed by Farm Sanctuary, which harbors about 1,000 disabled animals in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Orland, Calif. The court, in a 2-1 ruling, said Farm Sanctuary "successfully alleged a credible threat of harm from downed cattle."

The Agriculture Department rejected Farm Sanctuary's initial request in 1998 to ban downer cows from market. "There is no need to automatically condemn the carcasses," wrote Daniel L. Engeljohn, USDA director of analysis for food inspection regulations, in a letter to the group's lawyer.

Food inspectors can distinguish between animals that can't walk because of disease and animals that can't walk because of injury, Engeljohn wrote, and he added that barring all downed animals' meat "would have a serious economic impact."

"If you ban all downer cows from the food chain, now what are you going to do with them?" asked Jim Cullor, a University of California at Davis professor of veterinary medicine. "Are you going to put them in pet food? Bury them all in a toxic waste dump? You can't burn it because there are air-quality rules."

A ban is "completely fair to talk about," Cullor said. "But offer some solutions, too."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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