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    A visit to the slaughterhouse

                            Animal Health

The Garden


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 human consumption.

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.

The brutal 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.

Copyright © Newsday, Inc. Produced by Newsday Electronic Publishing.



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