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Friday, December 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Wayne Pacelle
Animal-welfare and food-consumer groups have long warned that the agriculture department 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 human consumption. Most downers are spent dairy cattle, and are the prime carriers of "mad-cow" disease. (The Holstein in Yakima County that tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was unable to walk due to complications from a pregnancy.)
A 2001 study in Germany found that downed cows were up to 240 times more likely to test positive for BSE. The USDA 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 to 15 per cent of downers are tested for BSE in this country.
The alarming economic consequences from the discovery of a single, infected dairy cow are unfolding now import bans on American beef, consumer confidence rattled, cattle quarantined and destroyed.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and beef-industry representatives blithely assure the public that our food supply is safe. Yet the continuing boycott of Canadian beef by the U.S. and some 30 other countries that so far has cost Canada almost $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, a tiny fraction of the roughly 35 million head that will be killed and butchered this year.
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 was approved last year in the U.S. 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.
Farmers continue to sell these crippled, low-value animals for processed meat or hamburger, instead of euthanizing them. A study by California Department of Agriculture veterinarian Pam Hullinger found that their average net value to the farmer is just $28.70 per animal after shipping and other costs are factored in.
The fast-food industry led by McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King considers downer meat too dangerous for its customers and no longer buys it. So do mink farmers who refuse to feed it to their animals.
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 most of these disabled animals.
Following its recent outbreak that involved a single, aged dairy cow, Canada is on the verge of banning the slaughter of downed cattle. That's exactly the preventive action Veneman should have ordered months ago when the discovery of BSE north of the border signaled its virtually certain appearance here.
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, the beef industry, and the nation's economy.
Wayne Pacelle is a senior vice-president of The Humane Society of the United States. www.hsus.org.
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