id="headline">Feds Lag Badly on Mad Cow Disease Shields
By Wayne Pacelle
Wayne Pacelle is a senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.
December 29, 2003
The threat that
mad cow disease poses to public health and the economic health of the
agriculture industry is very real because of one primary fact:
Congress, the Department of Agriculture and the American beef and dairy
industry have knowingly allowed the slaughter of diseased cattle for
In particular, animal welfare and food
consumer groups have long warned about the threat posed by “downer”
animals — cattle too sick to stand or walk. Most downers are spent
dairy cattle like the Holstein in Washington State that tested positive
for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and are the most likely carriers
of mad cow disease.
The Agriculture Department itself 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 known threat, an average of only 10-15 percent of downers
are tested for BSE in this country. Further, even the department’s
chief veterinarian, Ron DeHaven, conceded on Friday that the United
States does not have an adequate tracking system for cattle.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and beef industry representatives
have blithely assured the public that our food supply is safe. But the
claim is hollow.
The department and Congress 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 downer cattle are shipped to
slaughter, a tiny fraction of the roughly 35 million butchered annually.
To prevent a future BSE catastrophe and at the same time 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, pressed by Rep. Gary Ackerman
(D-Jamaica Estates), was approved last year in the House and Senate,
but was killed in conference committee after the dairy industry lobbied
against it. The Senate passed an even stronger measure this year but a
conference committee again dominated by members obedient to the dairy
and cattle industries defeated it once more.
handling of downers is one of the cruelest aspects of industrial
agriculture. When sick animals collapse in the livestock trucks or the
holding pens en route to slaughter, they are routinely beaten, shocked,
dragged with chains or pushed with bulldozers. The 27 percent that
don’t pass federal health inspection become living garbage, condemned
to expire slowly and painfully, alone or on the death pile. Those that
do pass 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 preventative action Veneman should have ordered
months ago when the discovery of BSE in Canada signaled its virtually
certain appearance here.
Veneman needs to take immediate
action. 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, the animals and the nation’s economy.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.