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Ban on allowing downer cattle into the food supply could cost dairy farmers

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FREDERIC J. FROMMER
April 11, 2008
— Dairy farmers stand to lose income if the government honors congressional demands for a total ban on downer cattle after a California slaughterhouse failed to keep them out of the food supply.

In 2004, the Agriculture Department banned cows too sick or injured to stand. But in finalizing the rule last year, the department called for cattle that get injured after they pass inspection to be re-evaluated to determine whether they are eligible for slaughter.


This year, an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States showed workers at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., dragging downer dairy cows with chains, shocking them with electric prods and shooting streams of water in their faces. The USDA shut down the plant, saying the company hadn’t prevented downer cattle from entering the food supply.


Several lawmakers have since challenged the USDA to impose a total ban because downers pose a greater risk of illnesses such as mad cow disease.


After the video’s release, the Humane Society sued the USDA to seek a total ban, calling the current policy a loophole that should be closed to protect consumers and ensure the humane treatment of animals. The suit says the Chino workers were trying to get the cows to stand, even briefly, so they could be considered acceptable for human consumption.


Dairy farmers sell their cows for slaughter – known as “culled cows” – once the animals are no longer productive. Downer cattle tend to be older dairy cows rather than younger beef cattle because of the health problems associated with aging. Dairy farmers get several hundred dollars for each cow they sell for slaughter.


Harold Ellenbecker, a dairy farmer in Greenville, Wis., about 35 miles southwest of Green Bay, said that often, a cow that goes down is just injured but has no illness that would make it unsafe for human consumption.


“It’s the inspector’s job to see if they’re healthy enough to enter the food supply,” Ellenbecker said. “There’s too many hungry people out there, that meat should be used” if an inspector approves it.


Ellenbecker opposes not just an expansion of the downer ban but the ban itself. He said he loses $3,000 to $8,000 a year because of the prohibition, which was put in place by the USDA following the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. He says tightening the ban would further depress dairy farmer income.


The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees the nation’s slaughterhouses, says it does not keep numbers on how many downers enter the food supply after they’ve been re-inspected following a fall.


The National Milk Producers Federation hasn’t analyzed the economic impact of a total downer ban, according to spokesman Chris Galen. He said that dairy farmers get about 5 percent of their income from the sale of cows for slaughter. The group supports the existing ban but doesn’t think it needs to be tightened.


“Cattle can have trouble standing or walking for a variety of reasons, including fatigue, injury and illness,” Galen said. “Whether such conditions are temporary or permanent, or whether they pose a food safety concern, should be left to qualified food safety regulators.”


Animal welfare groups, which are pushing a total ban, argue that it’s often difficult to make that call on the spot.


Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, said that USDA inspectors can’t always tell if an injury is the result of some underlying neurological problem. Further, he argued, the inspectors don’t have time to do thorough reviews.


Baur said the USDA has resisted a total ban in part because of opposition from the dairy and packer industries, “which want to make every last dollar on these animals. Also, the USDA and the industries have the same basic attitude about these animals as commodities – without any regard for the animals’ welfare and consideration for consumers’ health and ethical sensitivity.”


Baur also argued that a clearer ban on downers would provide an incentive for dairy farmers to take better care of their animals.


“These cows should not be pushed beyond their capabilities,” he said. “They shouldn’t be kept on the farm until they’re milked for every last drop.”


Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said he was limited in what he could say on the issue because of the Humane Society lawsuit.


“But what I can say is we’re in the midst of an investigation to find out what went wrong, how widespread it was, and what we can do about it,” he said. “And we’re going to take the appropriate actions when the investigation gets done – both internally at USDA and externally with the industry.”



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