USDA ending downer cow slaughter exception

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The government ban on slaughtering downer cattle is one more safeguard against bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced May 20 a total ban on the slaughter of downer cows for human consumption. The decision ends a regulatory exception whereby federal veterinarians could determine whether a cow that became unable to walk after preslaughter inspection was fit for processing.

"(The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) will draft a proposed rule to remove the exception that allows certain injured cattle to proceed to slaughter," Schafer said. "This action is expected to provide additional efficiencies to food safety inspection by removing the step that requires inspection workforce to determine when nonambulatory cattle are safe to slaughter."

Schafer announced the proposed rule at the end of a 60-day review of conditions at the nation's slaughterhouses.

The review and proposal follow the nation's largest beef recall earlier this year after workers at a Chino, Calif., slaughter plant were secretly videotaped abusing cattle unable to stand (see JAVMA, March 15, 2008). Images of the crippled animals being processed in violation of humane handling and food safety regulations sparked fears that cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy had entered the food system.

Schafer said it was "extremely unlikely" that animals processed at the Chino plant were sick with the fatal disease. No violations had been found at the other plants, he said.

The change will affect a small number of cows. In 2007, fewer than 1,000 cattle re-inspected were approved by a veterinarian for slaughter, representing less than 0.003 percent of the some 34 million cattle slaughtered annually, according to Schafer.

The American Meat Institute and National Milk Producers Federation were among industry organizations that petitioned the USDA to end the practice; the Humane Society of the United States had filed a lawsuit with the same goal.

The secretary explained that the change was not a result of any public health threat, but rather, consumer confusion surrounding the downer exception. "To maintain consumer confidence in the food supply, eliminate further misunderstanding of the rule and, ultimately, to make a positive impact on the humane handling of cattle, I believe it is sound policy to simplify this matter by initiating a complete ban on the slaughter of downer cattle that go down after initial inspection," he said.