Decision is a milestone victory for animal welfare and food safety
Today, President Barack Obama announced in his weekly video address that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will finally ban the slaughter of all downed cows for food. This is a major win for animal protection and consumer health advocates that has been in the making since the early 1990s, when organizations like Farm Sanctuary and HSUS started pushing the government to pass legislation prohibiting producers from dragging sick, crippled cattle to the killing floor for processing. Significantly, Obama took action on this important issue only 54 days into his still-young presidency, sending the message that he takes food safety and animal welfare seriously.
Elected and appointed officials must (or should) know by now that downed animals are far more likely than their ambulatory counterparts to carry diseases such as mad cow and bacteria like E. coli that can be fatal to humans who eat their meat. During one of the eight congressional hearings held last year following the largest beef recall in U.S. history, many of them would have also seen HSUS’s undercover video exposé showing workers at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company packing plant in Chino, California abusing downed cows by ramming them with forklifts and shocking them with electric prods. Nevertheless, the USDA has allowed producers to process cattle who become downed after reaching the slaughterhouse since 2007. The ban Obama announced today will close this legal loophole by permanently prohibiting the slaughter of all downed cattle for food, no matter when they become disabled.
Animals typically become downers because of the way they are raised on factory farms: genetically bred for fast growth, crowded together or confined in cages or crates, mutilated without anesthetic, and fed garbage, the only reason that any factory farmed animals can actually walk to their own deaths is that they are routinely pumped up with non-therapeutic antibiotics. Because downed animals are already suffering greatly when they get to the slaughterhouse, current laws must be reformed to require timely euthanization of cattle deemed unfit for human consumption in order for the ban to actually prevent animals from lingering in pain. I assume that such a provision will be put in place (but cannot presently find any corroborating details), and that some kind of enforcement mechanisms will be implemented.
Political Prognostications and Appointees
In September 2008, I wrote a blog post analyzing Obama’s record on animal issues, concluding that he would be far more likely to support and promote animal causes than his opponent, Republican candidate John McCain, based on their respective legislative histories. In January, I wrote my monthly column for The Animal World magazine about Tom Vilsack, Obama’s appointee to Secretary of Agriculture, examining his public service career and speculating as to whether he would challenge Big Ag's mistreatment of animals. Well, it seems like the administration is on the right track so far: here’s hoping they keep up the momentum and accomplish even more for animals in the coming four years.
Secretary Vilsack called the downed cow ban "a step forward for both food safety and the standards for humane treatment of animals," which is a brave statement for someone in his position, given that most previous Secretaries of Agriculture have been unwilling to even acknowledge farm animal welfare as a legitimate concern for fear of blowback from powerful agribusiness interests. For his own part, President Obama also made some bold assertions in his video address. For example, after qualifying that "the United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket," he called the nation’s food safety inspection system a "hazard to public health," noting that the annual number of contaminated food outbreaks in the U.S. today is more than triple what it was just 15 years ago.
Alerting viewers to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been so underfunded that it can only inspect about 5% of the nation’s food processing facilities every year, President Obama promised that his new pick for FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, will change all that — and start by hiring more inspectors. "Dr. Hamburg brings to this vital position not only a reputation of integrity," Obama said, "but a record of achievement in making Americans safer and more secure." There’s absolutely no question about it, Hamburg's résumé is impressive, so it’s not surprising that both public health advocates and food industry groups are praising the pick. According to Obama, the work of Hamburg and her Deputy Commissioner at the FDA, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, "will be part of a larger effort taken up by a new Food Safety Working Group" that will advise the president "on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century; foster coordination throughout government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them."
Pigs: The Other Downed Animals
The downed animal ban announced by President Obama applies only to cattle, leaving downed pigs, sheep, goats, and other farm animals to suffer the cruelty inherent in dragging, pushing or otherwise coercing large animals onto the kill floor. Pigs are also known to carry transmissible diseases from which humans have died and approximately 100,000 downed pigs go to market each year, yet for the foreseeable future, these animals will continue to suffer cruelty while the pork-eating public remains at risk. And don’t forget that salmonella poisoning kills about 1,500 humans every year, and that approximately 15% of chickens sold in the U.S. are contaminated with salmonella.
People who eat meat must understand that as long as agribusiness corporations insist on treating animals like interchangeable biomachines instead of individual living creatures, meat will be swarming with bacteria from feces and other unsanitary substances that are part and parcel of the assembly-line factory farming system. That is, improvements in animal welfare and food safety are intimately connected — and you can’t have one without the other. So please, urge your legislators and President Obama to expand the downed animal ban so that it protects all farm animal species.