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.

  • John Munsell

    Doc, in your concluding sentence above you state that is an issue of taking PERFECTLY SAFE (emphasis added) meat out of the market. I gotta confess, I did this many times……………because of FSIS policies. Let me explain. Lots of perfectly healthy animals break bones, especially large meaty bulls during the breeding season; some can subsequently walk, some cannot and become downers. Many times I had ranchers call me, asking if I could slaughter and process such downer animals for their own consumption or for sale to me. Prior to the BSE scare, I provided such services all the time. On the kill floor, we oftentimes removed an entire leg because of bone splinters, bruises and blood clots. But the entire remainder of the animal was perfectly normal. When we subsequently boned out the carcasses, our boners used a heightened surveillance to detect and remove physical defects. The larger animals would provide over 500 lbs of perfectly normal, non-diseased meat. We took other precautions as well, taking the temperature of such animals before slaugther to ensure they weren’t infected. Indeed, the symptom of being non-ambulatory MIGHT indicate BSE. But realizing we’ve had only 3 BSE-positive animals while millions (probably) of non-ambulatory animals have existed over the decades, FSIS has unilaterally chosen to remove millions of lbs of nutritious meat from home freezers. Yea, I know, FSIS claims it utilizes an “Abundance of Caution” to prevent mad cow meat to infect consumers. Why doesn’t the agency likewise utilize a similar abundance of caution to trace contaminated meat back to the source? Another issue totally, but my point is that if the agency piously proclaims an “Abundance of Caution” on some issues, it must likewise implement the alleged abundance of caution throughout its portfolio of responsibilities. Example: how in the dickens could FSIS have allowed conditions to exist at Rancho Feeding for over a full year before “suggesting” that Rancho Feeding recall all its production for over a year’s worth of business? FSIS has chosen to not release any details, allegedly for “legal” reasons. Nevertheless, if the agency would consistently utilize its ostensible abundance of caution exemplified by the downer ban throughout all the agency’s responsibilities, we wouldn’t have the number of outbreaks and recalls besetting us. The agency picks and chooses which items are the most politically correct (such as humane handling), and maximizes its PR image by focusing on that handful of front burner issues. John Munsell

    • tallen2007

      Excellent points! Only comment I have pertains to the trustworthiness and integrity of the slaughter plant employees and management. Many plants (think custom processing) can operate for decade after decade with no food safety or public health issues. I take my livestock and poultry to them. They care, it shows and I trust them. Other plants, including USDA inspected operations, (not mentioning names) I would not trust because of the attitude of the management. Money over safety, lack of knowledge about sanitation and food safety and lack of caring by underpaid employees. Did I mention money? Just because there has never been a recall (yet) doesn’t mean people haven’t gotten ill. Of course you’ll be hard pressed to prove it because the contamination MUST have happened after the product left the plant….

  • doc raymond

    BB, I could not agree more with you, and would add 24/7 inspection in the pens of old cull cows and bulls. These areas, including veal calves, make for easy pickin’s by HSUS and others. but of course without funding from Congress this is not going to happen. It is easier for them to get re-elected by citing humane handling issues thru removal of non-ambulatory calves than by increasing the spending of tax dollars.
    And Terry, I promised the editor you would respond so thanks for backing my prediction up. I have read your tripe before so did not reread the whole thing. but your point about the age of the cattle takes on the scientific regulatory bodies of every country but one that exports US beef. They all, but one, agree that meat from cattle under 30 months of age carries zero risk of BSE prions.

    • Dr. Richard Raymond Sir, I only reply when you are scientifically wrong. I commented today, because again, you were scientifically wrong, and I proved it again, with scientific facts to back it up. sorry if that upsets you. you can fool some of the folks some of the time, but not all of us all the time. you either blatantly lied in your editorial, or you are grossly uninformed, time and time again. I think the public can take their pick on that, and in both cases, and they would be correct in both cases, in my opinion. you have a nice day sir. …kind regards, terry


      see full text Dr. Richard Raymond vs Terry S. Singeltary Sr.


      kind regards,

    • tallen2007

      Derogatory comments immediately cause you to lose the battle. Scientists right up to the 19th century believed in Spontaneous Generation, and some even wrote recipe books for making animals. Only God knows the whole truth and you are not God. Mr Singeltary is doing his best to keep us informed as best he can. Too bad you are not open to others points of view.

  • gene

    Dr. Raymond’s article and Mr. Munsell’s comments are both persuasive and eloquent and yet I find it ironic that both leave me wanting to be a vegetarian.

  • lifeinorange

    On T. S. Singeltary’s comments…….WOW!

  • Sharon Umbrell

    Dear Dr. Raymond; I have to disagree with you. Even though your saying most caves, pigs etc. are down, downer or non ambulatory because of dehydration, fatigue etc. I’m sure there are some that are also sick. As you say “most”. are dehydration fatigue stress and age. So with that being the case, are you suggesting that a holding pen be set?
    With your idea of stress and fatigue, a 24 to 48 hour holding time would put the animal back on its feet “if” it is downed due to stress etc. The animals that don’t get back on their feet in that amount of time would then trully be a downed animal.
    The same would go for your bob veal calfs, at one week that calf sould not be in the condition you suggest. Even a calf that has been tied to a crate at one week old sould be able to stand with out shaky legs. If a one week old bob veal calf has the shaky legs of a new born, than that calf has been under major transport stress. Again the 24 to 48 hour rest period would be the answer and that amount of time would not change the quiality of the meat.

  • Gertrude “Trudy”

    Mr. Singletary’s comment is factual. I wish he were a regular writer for Food Safety News.
    I also wish the food industry were more moderate in its methods and financial goals.
    More local MOFGA farmers and animal raisers, less animal-as-machine giant food production systems. My take on it is–Put your money where your mouth is. Buy from farmers not Farma. Contribute to lawmakers who vote the same way you would. Vote against the ones who don’t.
    Besides…Big Farma’s prices aren’t that much lower…only their nutritional profiles are.
    And you don’t know where the food product came from. The label only shows the distributor.
    The MOFGA raw milk, eggs, and meat I buy provide on the front labels the names, addresses, sometimes phone numbers or even a map to the farms producing them.
    Anyone is welcome to come visit and see how they run things, and maybe buy something.
    Disease is not a big problem. “Downers” aren’t either (animals who are “down” due to mistreatment equivalent to a WWII Nazi concentration camp). Maybe because MOFGA animals are grass-fed and mostly free-range, despite our northern winters..indoors only when it’s too bad outdoors.
    They aren’t as big, they don’t earn as big a gross income, yet each family-owned farm has been financially successful enough to stay in business over the years. Isn’t that financial success?