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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Should ALL “Downers” be banned from the food supply?

I am thinking about the reasons, ethically, medically and financially why we allow "downer" cattle into our food supply – at any level.  Over the next few days I will give you my thoughts.  Please feel free to weigh in. 

To put things in context, The USDA suggested, and Westland/Hallmark issued, the largest beef recall in history (143 million pounds of meat and now recalls have been issued for retail food items containing traces of the banned beef) just a few weeks ago. This all after the Humane Society released undercover video showing workers at Westland/Hallmark shoving sick or crippled cows (a.k.a. “downers”) with forklifts to get them to stand. So, what is a “downer?”

9 CFR 309.2(b) permanently replaces the term “downer” with non-ambulatory disabled livestock. 9 CFR 309.2(b) continues to define “non-ambulatory disabled livestock” as livestock that cannot rise from a recumbent position or that cannot walk, including, but not limited to, those with broken appendages, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertebral column, or metabolic conditions.

So, what’s the beef?  In 2004, the USDA tightened regulations to prohibit the slaughter of all "downer" cows — animals that cannot stand (non-ambulatory) — after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease was discovered in Washington State.  After that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) prohibited the slaughter of cattle that were unable to stand or walk when presented for pre-slaughter inspection.  The inability to stand or walk could be a clinical sign of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).  The New York Times has recently reported that the disease is extremely rare in the United States, but of the 15 cases documented in North America, most in Canada, the majority has been traced to downer cattle.  Seems another reasonable rationale for keeping downers out of the food chain?

Another positive effect of the 2004 incomplete downer ban was that it might reduce other illnesses as well.  A USDA study published in August 2004 found that downer cows had three times more of the deadly bacterium E. coli O157:H7 than other cows.  Salmonella also seemed to be more prevalent.  According to a recent report by the Chicago News Tribune, downer cows typically have often have been milked for several years, leaving their bodies without the muscle, fat and calcium of grazing, well-fed beef cattle.  In addition, dairy cows also can carry some common maladies, including mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder; foot rot, which they can develop standing for long periods in manure, mud and damp straw; and Johne’s (pronounced yo-neez) disease.  Scientists think these diseases are not carried into the human food chain, with one exception.  Health and animal scientists are currently debating whether the traits of Johne’s are responsible for Crohn’s disease in humans.  Crohn’s disease is an intestinal disorder that can cause inflammation of the colon, severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and weight loss.  Hmm, seems like another good rationale for keeping downers out of you hamburger?

But have downers been excluded from our meat supply?  In addition to the recent “caught on video moment,” the GAO has found instances where slaughter facilities have in fact put downers through the system.  A 2006 audit (PDF) by the USDA’s inspector general found downer cows were still being processed for food and that USDA’s policy was inconsistent.  At two of 12 plants visited from June 2004 to April 2005, downer cattle were slaughtered for food.  One facility processed 27 of them, the other slaughtered two.  There are those instances where both the animals and the rules have been abused.  A U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change made in July 2007 specifically allows some sick or crippled cows into the food supply.  Under the rule, cattle that are injured after they pass pre-slaughter inspection will be reevaluated to determine their eligibility for slaughter.  Also, veal calves that cannot stand because they are tired or cold may be set apart and held for treatment and re-inspection.  The basis for the rule change/clarification is that cows that fell down after an initial veterinarian inspection but appeared otherwise healthy could still be slaughtered. The Humane society alleges in lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to block the usage of all downer cattle.

So, ethically (from the cows’ perspective at least) appropriately dealing with sick, injured and dying cows need to be considered.  Protecting the food chain from BSE, E. coli, Salmonella and Crohn’s also seems to make sense.  So, what’s the problem?  The economics of this all to follow.

  • Dog Mommy

    Yes, for human health. Downers result from long-term health issues that ought not be introduced into the food chain. Yes, for animal kindness. If only ambulatory, healthy cattle are allowed at market, all will receive better care earlier in life. Yes, for responsible use of God-given renewable resources. Especially as a food source for man, they are due respect according to their purpose and function in the Creation. “The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Proverbs 12:10 KJV.

  • Have a look at page 3 of FSIS Notice 56-07. It provides a list of “talking points” for inspectors to use in meetings with meat processors in discussing the non-ambulatory cattle policy “clarification”. Specifically, one of the talking points states:
    “9 CFR 309.3(e) continues to require that non-ambulatory disabled cattle that are offered for slaughter be condemned. However, this requirement now also clarifies that FSIS inspection personnel will determine the disposition of cattle that become non-ambulatory disabled after such cattle have passed ante-mortem inspection on a case-by-case basis. This revision reflects current Agency practices but adds this clarification to the regulatory text.”
    As I read this statement, FSIS has been “interpreting” the absolute downer cow ban to permit a case-by-case judgment call all along.

  • Bix

    Interesting, Phyllis. Boy, this is a grey area, isn’t it. Or at least some want it to be a grey area.
    If you have a healthy cow that steps in a hole and breaks its ankle, you may still have a healthy cow (for a short time at least). Pass? or Fail?
    If you have a cow that appears lethargic and confused, but you can coax it up … Pass? or Fail?
    How do you tell the difference between a healthy cow and a sick cow? Without running costly, time-consuming, objective tests? Maybe you just Fail all suspect cows. (As Bill described: the “2004 incomplete downer ban “) No case-by-case, subjective “clarifications” needed.
    I think subjective calls are fraught with risk. If you want to conduct a case-by-case inspection, though, no problem. But (in my opinion), you shouldn’t be allowed to do it by sight; you must do it by lab. I can’t imagine that happening.

  • Test the Westland/Hallmark Recalled Meat.

    Once again, Stephen J. Hedges of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE is on top of the issues surrounding the slaughter of “downer” cows, and the risks (or not) to our food supply. His article, “The Last Roundup” appeared in the BUFFALO NEWS…