In areas of India where the Hindu majority holds sway, “spent cows” wander freely because they are considered sacred as motherly figures that gave people milk.

In the United States, it’s a little more complicated.   By some estimates, as much as 17 percent of the U.S. beef supply comes from cows no longer able to economically produce milk.

More often than not, “spent cows” are sold for slaughter to provide meat for human consumption.  A dairy might decide a cow is “spent” for any number of reasons such as mastitis, udder infection, foot rot, and calcium depletion.  “Downer cows,” such as those mistreated recently at the Chino slaughterhouse, are the examples of the most debilitated “spent cows.”

A week rarely goes by without one or more dairies in the U.S. being warned about abuse of animal drugs used to medicate “spent cows” just before they are sold for slaughter.  It often results in antibiotics being found in the edible tissues of animals at levels far higher than allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

At this point, however, the term “spent cow” does not mean anything formally.  But, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is at least considering making “spent cows” a category for special treatment.

The Meat Trade News Daily reports FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza participated in an industry roundtable where he raised that possibility.  It would mean that “spent cows” could be slaughtered for meat for human consumption, but only for products that are cooked or canned.

“Spent cows” would not be used for raw beef products.

Under the Obama administration, FSIS may take a more risk-based approach to inspection and slaughter.  It would mean slaughterhouses would have to take into account the food safety risks associated with buying various types of animals.

The meat industry is likely to oppose limitations on “spent cows.”  Meat Trade News said older cows continue to have economic value; USDA’s existing rules prevent slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle, and there is no correlation between age and food safety.

Then there’s the experience USDA had with “spent-hens” meaning the 100 million egg-laying hens culled each year.  USA Today reported last December that USDA spent more than $145 million on spent-hen meat for the National School Lunch program.  It bought more than 77 million pounds of spent hen meat for chicken patties and salads.

About the only other markets for “spent hen” meat was for pet food and compost.