Consequences of cruelty

December 31, 2003|By Wayne Pacelle

THE THREAT that mad cow disease poses to public health and to the economic health of the agriculture industry is so very real because of one primary fact: Our government has knowingly allowed the slaughter of downed and diseased cattle for human consumption.

Animal welfare activists have long warned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been playing Russian roulette with the nation's meat supply by allowing "downer" animals - cattle too sick to stand or walk - to be slaughtered for food. Most downers are spent dairy cattle such as the Holstein that tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and are the most likely carriers of mad cow disease.

Data from Europe indicate that downed cows are far more likely to have BSE than ambulatory cattle. The USDA has warned that downers "represent a significant pathway for spread of disease if they are not handled or disposed of with appropriate safeguards."

Despite this threat, an average of only 10 percent to 15 percent of downers are tested for BSE in this country. And even the tested animals are often processed for human food because the lab results are returned long after the animals have been slaughtered and the meat marketed.

The alarming economic consequences of the discovery of a BSE-infected dairy cow are unfolding now - import bans on American beef, consumer confidence rattled, cattle quarantined and destroyed.

USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman and her allies in industry blithely assure the public that our food supply is safe. Yet the continuing boycott of Canadian beef by the United States and about 30 other countries that so far has cost Canada about $3 billion makes that claim ring hollow. If we won't buy Canadian beef, why should other nations buy ours when the mad cow scenarios are identical?

Congress and the USDA must share the blame - and face the fact that the threat of mad cow disease can be strongly mitigated by not processing the meat of animals most likely to be carrying BSE.

Each year, about 200,000 sick or injured downed cattle are shipped to slaughter - less than 1 percent of the 36 million bovines that are annually killed and butchered.

To prevent a future BSE catastrophe and also ensure more humane treatment, a law should be passed requiring all downed animals to be euthanized on the farm or feedlot instead of being sold and shipped to slaughter. Such a measure was approved in 2002 in the House and Senate but was killed in a conference committee after the cattle industry lobbied against it. The Senate passed an even stronger measure this year, but a conference committee again dominated by members beholden to the industry defeated it once more.

Farmers continue to sell these sick and crippled animals for processed meat or hamburger instead of euthanizing them. A study by a California Department of Agriculture veterinarian, Pam Hullinger, revealed that the payoff for the dangerous practice of processing downed animals is paltry - the average net value to the farmer is a mere $28.70 per downed animal after shipping and other costs are factored in.

McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King no longer purchase meat from slaughterhouses that accept animals in that condition. Three years ago, the USDA banned it from the National School Lunch Program. Several states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin, prohibit downers from being sold or killed at state-inspected abattoirs but have no control over federally regulated slaughterhouses that process the preponderance of the animals sold for food.

The coarse handling of downers is one of the cruelest aspects of industrial agriculture. When sick animals collapse in the livestock trucks or the holding pens on the way to slaughter, they are routinely beaten, shocked, dragged with chains or pushed with bulldozers. Those that don't pass visual inspection by federal authorities at slaughterhouses become living garbage, condemned to expire slowly and painfully, alone or on a dead pile. Those that do pass inspection enter the food supply.

Upon discovering a single, aged dairy cow in Canada stricken with mad cow disease, veterinary authorities there called for banning the slaughter of downed cattle. That's exactly the preventive action Ms. Veneman should have ordered months ago, when the discovery of BSE north of the border signaled its virtually certain appearance here.

Ms. Veneman needs to take immediate action for economic and humane reasons. Euthanizing broken-down cattle instead of cruelly squeezing a few more dollars out of them is a small cost to bear for protecting our health and the animals.

Wayne Pacelle is a senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

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