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Politics of the Plate: More Good News for Food Safety

03.17.09
The USDA finally bans the slaughter of “downer” cows, and two new leaders at the FDA are expected to restore the agency’s tarnished reputation.
downer cow
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Down and Finally Out

It was a long time coming, but more than a year after the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) introduced the country to the shocking practice of slaughtering “downer” cattle (animals too sick to stand up and walk on their own), President Obama announced in his address last weekend that the practice will be completely banned in this country.

Click here to see the video of the practice taken by an undercover HSUS member—but be warned, it is extremely graphic.

Slaughtering such animals was exceptionally cruel; meat packing plant employees jabbed sick cows with electric prods, kicked them, and hoisted them to their feet with forklifts in order to get them to stumble a few yards to the “knock box.” Not only that, but slaughtering these cows also had potentially adverse health effects. Of 19 known cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease) in the United States, fully 15 incidents involved downers.

Despite the recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced at the Westland/Hallmark plant in California (the one filmed by the HSUS), a loophole large enough for a decrepit milk cow to stagger through remained open to processors. If a downed cow passed a secondary veterinary inspection, it could still be used as human food. Last May, then agriculture secretary Ed Schafer announced that the USDA would close the loophole. Somehow, the agency never got around to it.

Now it has. “The federal government is putting a stop to the inhumane and reckless practice of dragging and otherwise abusing downer cows in order to slaughter them for human consumption,” said HSUS President Wayne Pacelle in a press release. “We commend President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for taking quick action to protect animals and public health, especially after the foot dragging on the issue by the previous administration.”

Putting the “F” Back in the FDA

The USDA is not the only federal agency getting praise from advocacy groups these days. Michael Jacobson, the feisty executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had nothing but nice things to say about Drs. Margaret Hamburg and Joshua Sharfstein, respectively the newly appointed commissioner and deputy commissioner of the FDA.

Describing Hamburg as a “terrific choice” and praising Sharfstein for his “innovative public health leadership,” Jacobson noted, “While most past commissioners have focused primarily on the drug side of the FDA, Drs. Hamburg and Sharfstein both are well aware that the FDA also regulates foods. They will have additional resources and, I hope, new statutory authority to improve the FDA’s dismal record in the area of food safety and nutrition.”

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