Congressman Gary Ackerman, D-NY, this week reintroduced a bill to permanently prohibit the slaughter at meat plants of unhealthy livestock that cannot walk because they are diseased, injured or ill, and to require that these animals be humanely euthanized.

Lead cosponsor of the bipartisan bill, the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act (H.R. 3704), is Congressman Peter King, R-NY.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has banned the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle since 2009, after a 143 million-pound beef recall the year before. That recall was prompted by a Humane Society undercover video showing employees abusing cows at Westland/Hallmark Meat in Chino, CA, a plant that has since closed. Included in the recall were 37 million pounds of beef sent to the National School Lunch program.

It was a Class II recall — considered minimal health risk — and at the time, agriculture official insisted the rule change was not being done for public-health reasons, but to increase consumer confidence by eliminating confusion about the handling of animals referred to as “downers.”

Five years earlier, the USDA had tightened regulations to prohibit the slaughter of downer cattle after a case of mad-cow disease in Washington state.

Ackerman says downed cattle are 50 times more likely to have mad cow disease (also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE) than ambulatory cattle that are suspected of having BSE. Of the 20 confirmed cases of mad cow disease in North America since 1993, at least 16 have involved downer cattle, he said.

In his news release, Ackerman said his bill would improve existing regulations by making the ban on downer cattle permanent. Under current law, he noted, the USDA can loosen or repeal their rules at any time. The Congressman also said his measure would extend the ban to all livestock – not just cattle – and close an existing loophole that permits the slaughter of downed calves.

“This legislation is essential to ensuring Americans that our nation is doing all it can to safeguard the country’s food supply,” Ackerman wrote. “Americans should not have to worry whether the food they eat is from sick or diseased livestock and we cannot allow consumer confidence in the beef industry to ever be compromised again. Animals that are ill or injured should be humanely euthanized instead of being dragged through slaughterhouses then sold to restaurants, supermarkets or butchers for human consumption, a sick and disgusting practice.”