For most of the past decade, “downer” cattle were kept out of the food supply because of concern that most were older cows, which are thought to be more susceptible to disease, especially Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease. That policy is spelled out in Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Notice 56.07, the final regulation for non-ambulatory disabled cattle and specified risk materials.
“Downer” cow policy is all about controlling the risks of Mad Cow. But in 2009, USDA banned the slaughter of all non-ambulatory cattle–even younger ones– after the disturbing events at Westland/Hallmark Meat in Chino, CA where “downer” cattle were being moved by forklift to the “kill box.”
Under the current “downer” policy, adopted after the 143 million pound recall of beef from the Chino slaughterhouse, including 37 million pounds that went to the National School Lunch program, any dairy or beef cattle including heavy calves that are non-ambulatory must be presented to the USDA veterinarian for ante-mortem inspection.
If the animal does not rise to the inspection, it is condemned and humanely euthanized. Because of their youth and relatively low weight, veal calves are not covered by the “downer” policy. This is mainly because veal calves are not candidates for BSE.
Veal is the meat from a calf or young beef animal. A veal calf is raised for 16 to 18 weeks, and might weigh up to 450 pounds. Bob veal calves are even younger, marketed at just three weeks and about 150 pounds. Male dairy calves are used in the veal industry because otherwise they’d be of little value.
Currently, veal calves that were cold or tired could be set aside for treatment and approved for slaughter later if the veterinarian found them fit for consumption. But FSIS plans to discard that policy, and begin treating veal calves with its full BSE defenses.
In a letter, FSIS has told the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that it has approved a four-year old request from the animal rights organization that demands veal calve “downers” offered for slaughter be “promptly and humanely euthanized.”
Dr. Richard Raymond, who was under secretary for food safety at USDA when most of the current “downer” policy was implemented, says he does “not have a clue as to why FSIS would want to keep otherwise healthy veal calves from the food supply.”
“If the calf has passed the veterinarian inspection,” Raymond says. “I don’t understand this one at all.”’
FSIS Administrator Al Almanza is citing “inspection efficiency” and slaughterhouse compliance with “humane slaughter regulations” and not food safety as justification for the coming policy change. Almanza says because of “limited regulatory resources,” there is no timetable for implementing the change and existing rules on veal calves will remain in effect until then.
In press release, HSUS said existing policy really amounts to a loophole that allows downer calves to be kept alive “indefinitely,” and therefore prone to abuse at the slaughterhouse.
“We are pleased the USDA is finally moving to address the serious animal welfare and food safety concerns associated with the slaughter of downer calves,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, HSUS senior vice president for animal protection litigation and investigations. “We urge the agency to move forward on this issue to protect young calves from inhumane handling and slaughter, and revise its regulations without further delay.”
It probably should be noted that humane treatment of animals going through a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse is required and enforced through regulation. From the perspective of the veal calf, there isn’t supposed to be much difference between the “kill box” used in slaughter for human consumption and being “promptly and humanely euthanized” as demanded by HSUS.
As it did with the “downer” cows at the Chino facility, however, HSUS conducted an undercover investigation at a Vermont slaughterhouse that documented workers kicking and shocking veal calves. That plant was shut down and the owner and employees were convicted on animal cruelty charges.
In its petition to USDA, the Humane Society argues the more time veal calves spend at the slaughterhouse the more likely the animals will be subjected to cruelty. And that time also poises a food safety problem, according to HSUS, because calf fecal matter may contain pathogens dangerous to humans including Giardia, Salmonella, and the dangerous strains of E. coli.
Veal calves, including bob veal calves under 3 weeks of age, are in worldwide demand in part because of veal’s food safety reputation. About 750,000 veal calves are marketed annually in the U.S. and HSUS estimates 15 percent are bob veal calves.
During the final three months of 2012, FSIS condemned about 20,000 head per month of livestock intended for slaughter. It is not known how many of those were “downer” cows. The loss for animals not slaughtered for human consumption is generally borne by the farmer or rancher who brought livestock to market.
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