What is a downer calf? I will try and answer that question, and, in so doing, hope to better inform the 72 members of Congress who signed a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging him to prohibit the “slaughtering of non-ambulatory disabled calves (known as ‘downers’).” I will explain in a bit why I think this request makes little or no sense from a strictly food safety standpoint, but first the answer to my question using USDA terminology. A downer, almost always livestock, cannot stand on its own and is killed and then incinerated, buried or sent to rendering, depending on the country’s rules. A downer has never passed ante-mortem inspection, meaning inspection at rest and in motion. However, livestock that has passed inspection during ambulation, usually in the holding pens at a slaughter establishment or during the unloading process, and then goes down and won’t get back up is termed “non-ambulatory, disabled.” The causes of becoming “non-ambulatory, disabled” include broken legs, ruptured tendons and plain old fatigue. Tired critters rest, get hydrated and recover from the fatigue and become ambulatory again. To ban the slaughter of these animals would be a horrible waste of life. People still refer to fatigued pigs as downers, and that is wrong. They tire during loading, transport and unloading. They pass initial ante-mortem inspection, but then lie down and don’t get right back up. Given time, along with water and shade, they recover. Veal calves are similar, especially in the winter months, when they are even more stressed. These very young animals have been pampered and protected. Most have not been on the range, as that increases connective tissue, which detracts from the desired end product. Many are still confined to shacks and hutches – practices being phased out, but still present. They do not ambulate very much, and their muscular development is very lacking. Thus, loading, transporting and unloading leads to fatigue, but they are NOT downer calves. For background, a bob veal calf is slaughtered at an age of less than one month, many times less than one week. These guys still have the wobbly legs of a newborn calf. White veal are fed only milk or milk products and are slaughtered somewhere between 18-20 weeks, while red veal have been supplemented with solid food like hay and grain and are slaughtered between 22-26 weeks. Only the red veal calves are called calves or calf meat in stores and restaurants. All the rest are call veal. So Congress, is it just the calves you are fussing over, or are you including bob veal and veal calves? For those who may not know, most veal calves are male dairy calves, although either sex could do. A beef calf that is male is usually castrated and eventually sold for steaks, roasts and burgers. We don’t need a whole lot of dairy bulls, and the meat is not as desirable for steaks and roasts, so they become veal calves with that shortened lifespan. The “downer rule” that went into effect after the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in the U.S. in December 2003 was just one part of the multi-pronged effort to protect humans from eating meat containing the prion that causes BSE in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. The other components to protect us from this always-fatal disease are the long-standing ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban, the limits of border crossings of live beef and processed beef from certain higher-risk countries, and the testing of the herd for presence and the removal of Specified Risk Materials that might contain the prions at slaughter facilities under the daily, continuous inspection by USDA. Since the first cow in the U.S. with BSE (a Canadian-born cow, by the way), we have found only three more cows with BSE. We slaughter tens of millions per year. We really don’t have to worry about vCJD in this country. Plus, vCJD has never been linked to the consumption of U.S. beef, and BSE has never been found in cattle less than 30 months of age. The risk of contracting vCJD from veal calves is zero. The downer rule was written to keep cattle out of slaughter facilities that might have BSE, non-ambulatory status being a symptom of that disease. In their letter to Secretary Vilsack, the signers call for FSIS to amend its regulations so that “all non-ambulatory disabled calves be immediately and humanely euthanized, just as FSIS regulations currently require for adult non-ambulatory cattle.” Different animals and very different public health risks. So why would Congress now call for a ban on the slaughter of animals not even half-a-year old? Certainly not for BSE or vCJD as the original rule was written for. Their calling for the ban makes them look like spokespersons for Wayne Pacelle and HSUS. And he is applauding them. They claim that the ban would improve humane handling. We have laws and a USDA inspection system that are supposed to guarantee humane handling. Support the laws and USDA, but do not destroy perfectly healthy animals as a lever of enforcement. The next-to-last sentence of the letter confuses me even more as to the intentions of the 72. It reads: “As long as downed cattle are allowed to be slaughtered for food, companies will have an incentive to pressure workers to engage in rough handling … .” I counter that as long as we have the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and USDA, companies have an incentive to avoid rough handling. They have seriously mixed their adjectives between downer cattle, downed cattle and non-ambulatory disabled. I am not even sure what they mean or are asking for. Downer cattle are not slaughtered ever, but non-ambulatory, disabled veal calves may be under certain conditions. If a plant is seen mishandling animals, USDA’s inspection team can shut it down in a heartbeat – and they do so dozens of times every year. This is not a debate about the ethics of eating veal calves, nor the housing conditions, etc. This is an issue of taking perfectly safe meat out of the market, driving up the cost of beef, and forcing more people to find alternative protein sources.