WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the slaughter of sick, injured or weak calves for sale as meat, an issue that raises questions about both humane animal practices and food safety.
“Diseased cattle and baby cattle are going through the slaughter plants every day,” said Carolyn Ratliff, director of Carroll County’s Humane Society. “If they can’t get up, imagine how they’re being moved around. Those animals can be handled very badly.”
The slaughter of “downer” cattle, animals that cannot stand on their own due to disease, stress, or exhaustion, has been addressed before. In fact, it’s been banned by the USDA.
“The (USDA) has prohibited the slaughter of down cattle for human consumption, for both severe food safety and the humane handling reasons,” said Michael Markarian, chief program and policy officer at the Humane Society of the United States. “However, we discovered a loophole in that federal regulation that allowed the continued slaughter of down calves.”
Past regulations were largely meant to target carriers of mad cow disease, which typically affects heavier cattle past a certain age. Calves over 400 lbs. that cannot stand on their own are required to be euthanized.
But the regulations don’t apply to cows under 400 lbs.
A bipartisan group of 72 members of Congress addressed the issue in a letter to the USDA recently, more than four years after the loophole was discovered. Maryland representatives Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, are among the signees.
The letter asked the agency to prioritize and expedite closing the loophole in order to keep “tainted meat” out of the nation’s food supply and curtail inhumane treatment.
“I believe we must ensure the humane treatment of all animals while also protecting our food supply from the risks that downer cows can pose,” Cummings said, in a statement.
Edwards’ office acknowledged her support, and said the letter speaks for itself.
Repeated requests to the USDA for comment went unanswered.
“Although the young calves are less likely to get mad cow disease, it doesn’t mean they can’t get other diseases, especially if they are down and laying in their own waste,” Markarian said. “When young calves go down they are not required to be euthanized, and the producers can essentially set them aside and hope that they get up eventually, so that they can be slaughtered.”
Calves are susceptible to kicks and prods with electrical wires in attempts to get them to move, Markarian said. The Humane Society reported that when these tactics fail, sometimes calves are transported by machinery to the “kill box.”
The Maryland Cattlemen’s Association, a leading voice for the state’s cattle industry, is not opposed to further regulation.
“Humane and proper animal care and handling is the single highest priority of Maryland cattle producers,” said Dr. Scott M. Barao, executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Association, in a statement. “Non-ambulatory animals of any age should be treated under the care of a qualified veterinarian who should make the final decision regarding the course of treatment or even ultimately, humane euthanasia. There is no time that such an animal should enter the human food chain.”
Representatives from the meat industry agree that meat from debilitated calves should be kept out of the marketplace, however, they contend that mistreatment of young calves is not a common response to the animals’ inability to stand.
A report released in 2011 by the American Meat Institute said that a slaughter plant has no economic incentive to engage in abusive behavior in order to force calves to stand.
The report said that the assertion by the Humane Society “ignores the significant body of scientific literature that exists demonstrating a significant nexus between good animal welfare practices and meat quality.”
In Maryland, beef slaughter facilities are concentrated in the central and western regions, according to research from Johns Hopkins University.
Violators of cattle treatment laws in Maryland are guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to no more than $100 per incident.