The federal government will completely ban the slaughter of cattle that are unable to walk, said agriculture secretary Ed Schafer Tuesday.
The USDA ban would affect “downer cattle,” cattle that fall and are unable to stand after their preliminary inspection. Current rules state that downer cattle cannot be allowed into the food supply unless they pass a veterinarian’s inspection to ensure that there is no health risk. The planned change in rules would close that exception.
The rule has not yet been drafted but could take effect before the end of this year.
Schafer said in a press conference that closing the exception would “maintain consumer confidence in the food supply, eliminate further misunderstanding of the rule and … make a positive impact on the humane handling of cattle.“
The decision comes after the largest beef recall in U.S. history, which resulted in 143 million pounds of beef being pulled from the shelves. That recall was prompted by a video released by the Humane Society of the United States that showed workers at a meat plant in Chino using forklifts and electric prods to move disabled cattle.
“This is long-anticipated but welcome news,“ said Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle in a written statement. “This loophole contributed to the unacceptable abuses we documented at the Hallmark slaughter plant.“
Pacelle said he wants the rule to be expanded.
“We hope USDA broadens the rule to include auction houses, to require immediate euthanasia of downers, and to apply the rule to pigs and other livestock, not just cattle,“ he said.
Shafer said the new rule would only affect roughly 1,000, less than 0.003 percent, of the nearly 34 million cattle that are slaughtered per year.
The ban has broad support in the agricultural community.
“We support that from the veterinarian viewpoint, the animal science viewpoint, and even the cattle groups,“ said John Maas, a veterinarian with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We‘ve always supported that.“
Cattle that fall after their preliminary inspection are typically not sick, he said. Most of them have been injured in some way and cannot support themselves.
While some legislators have called downer cattle a health concern, the USDA and others have said the issue is purely a question of whether the animals are being treated humanely.
“Cattle are like people – when you‘re being transported and moved around there‘s always a chance of injury,“ Maas said. “Some of them can be illnesses, but most of them by and large are injuries because they‘re [otherwise] young, healthy cattle.“
Jim Oltjen, an animal science specialist with the UC Davis Cooperative Extension, said the risk of diseased meat getting into the food supply is minimal.
“There‘s a chance of illness, but that‘s what the veterinarian in the plant is looking for anyway,“ he said. “They look at all the heads, all the organs, and they take lots of samples.“
The original ban on downer cattle was implemented after an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in 2003. The recommendation to close the exception regarding downer cattle came after a 60-day review of cattle operations by the USDA prompted by the recall in February.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.