US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)
Proposed Rule on Requirements for the Disposition of Cattle that Become Non-Ambulatory Disabled Following Ante-Mortem Inspection
September 29, 2008
Michael Hansen, PhD
Consumers Union(1) (CU) welcomes the opportunity to comment on USDA’s Proposed rule on requirements for the disposition of cattle that become non-ambulatory disabled following ante-mortem inspection. CU believes that “non-ambulatory disabled” cattle (aka “downer cows”) should never be allowed into the human food chain, in large part due to the potential food safety risk such animals pose. Thus, CU strongly supports this proposed rule as it will close a loophole in USDA regulation so that all “non-ambulatory disabled” cattle (aka “downer cows”) will be condemned and not allowed into the human food supply, regardless of when they become downer cows.
In January, 2004, USDA’s interim Final rule, “Prohibition of the Use of Specified Risk Materials for Human Food and Requirements for the Disposition of Non-Ambulatory Disabled Cattle” (69 FR 1862, January 12, 2004), USDA/FSIS clearly prohibited the slaughter of downer cows for human food under any circumstance. The USDA took this strong action less than 1 month after the announcement on December 23, 2003 of the first US case of mad cow disease. USDA took this action because they recognized, in part, that downers cows are at increased risk of mad cow disease. CU strongly supported USDA taking this action and have supported bills, such as the 2004 Downed Animal Protection Act, which would ban use of downed animals for human food(2).
However, when FSIS published the final rule, “Prohibition of the Use of Specified Risk Materials for Human Food and Requirements for the Disposition of Non-Ambulatory Disabled Cattle; Prohibition of the Use of Certain Stunning Devices Used to Immobilize Cattle During Slaughter” (72 FR 38700), some four and a half years later on July 13, 2007, a loophole on the absolute prohibition of use of downer cows for human food had materialized. In this final rule (72 FR 38700), USDA allowed FSIS personnel to determine, on a case-by-case basis, what to do with cattle that passed ante-mortem inspection but then became “downer cows” (e.g. become non-ambulatory disabled cattle) prior to slaughter. If FSIS public health veterinarians determined that these cows, which passed ante-mortem inspection, became downers due to an acute injury, such as a broken leg or severed tendon, then such cows could be labeled “US Suspect” and can go to slaughter, under the thinking that such animals do not pose a food safety risk. The final rule also stipulated that “US Suspect” animals had to be tracked through the slaughter process and reinspected to insure that the animal became a downer due to an acute injury.
The scandal over the treatment of downers cows at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company early this year, which lead to the largest meat recall in history, shows the problem when there is not a clear line saying that no downer cows will be permitted into the human food supply. When there is not a clear line prohibition, establishments may be tempted to present weakened cattle for slaughter in the hope that such cattle will remain ambulatory long enough to be slaughtered.
In addition, another benefit of having a clear prohibition on use of all downer cows for human food, regardless of why the cow became a downer, is that USDA inspection personnel do not have to spend any time determining if a given animal deserves the “US Suspect” label nor reinspecting such “US Suspects” after slaughter. Thus, USDA inspection personnel can spend more time on other inspection activities.
In sum, CU supports deletion of the “US Suspect” category of cattle so that there is a clear ban on all downer cows being slaughtered for human food. Thus, we support USDA’s removal of the provision in 9 CFR 309.3(e) that allows for case-by-case disposition of cattle that become non-ambulatory disabled after ante-mortem inspection. In addition, we also support USDA’s proposal to modify 9 CFR 309.3(e) so that establishments are required to notify FSIS inspection personnel when cattle become downers after ante-mortem inspection. If slaughterhouses are required to notify USDA if cattle become downers after ante-mortem inspection, this should reduce the chance that such slaughterhouses might try to send these animals to slaughter. We note that Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company did not always notify FSIS inspection personnel when animals that passed ante mortem inspection subsequently became downers prior to slaughter, and so these animals were not reinspected.
We urge USDA to finalize this proposed rule so that all downer cows are banned from being used for human food. Taking this action will improve the safety of US meat.
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