WASHINGTON - The government plans to close a loophole in meat inspection rules that led to the record recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef this year, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said yesterday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will bar meat plants from slaughtering any cow that can't stand and walk on its own at any point after it arrives at a plant, said Schafer.
The rule would eliminate existing provisions that allow meat plants to send sick, or "downer," cows to slaughter if they fall ill after passing an initial inspection and subsequently pass a second inspection.
"I believe it is sound policy to simplify this matter by initiating a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle that go down after an initial inspection," Schafer said in a statement.
Drafting the new rule will take months, but it should take effect by the end of the year, a department spokesman said.
Schafer characterized the change as minor, saying that less than 1,000 of the 34 million cows slaughtered last year were approved after becoming sick and passing a second inspection. He also told reporters that an investigation found slaughterhouses were asking for those second inspections when warranted.
Still, the move was praised by members of Congress, industry associations and interest groups, who have been pushing for the move since the February recall, which was prompted by the release of an undercover Humane Society video showing abuse of sick cows at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who pressed Schafer to close the loophole in a letter this week, said the secretary's decision will improve the safety of the food supply. He called for finalization of the new ban as quickly as possible.
"The current regulation allowing downer cattle into the human food supply is confusing to consumers and our trading partners, expensive to administer, and unnecessarily risky from a public health standpoint," Durbin said in a statement.
Westland/Hallmark provided much of the ground beef used by federal school lunch programs. Its meat was recalled because plant workers failed to get a second inspection of cows that had fallen down just before slaughter.
That raised fears that meat companies were sending sick cattle to slaughter despite efforts to prevent their meat from entering the food supply as a precaution against mad cow disease.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, praised the rules change but said the government needed to take additional steps, such as requiring video surveillance of slaughterhouses and establishing criminal penalties for the use of electric prods and forklifts shown in the video.