WASHINGTON — The Humane Society of the United States is suing the USDA to prevent nonambulatory, or “downer” cattle from being slaughtered.

The group filed a lawsuit Feb. 27 in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., claiming a USDA regulation loophole fails to prohibit all downed cattle from being slaughtered for human consumption.

Currently, if an animal goes down after passing inspection before slaughter, the plant is required to notify a USDA veterinarian, who makes a case-by-base decision of the animal’s condition. The vet has the discretion about whether the animal will be slaughtered or move on to rendering.

It was that loophole, HSUS asserts, that contributed to the recent recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef. The recall was initiated after an HSUS investigation documented animal cruelty to nonambulatory or “downer” cattle at a slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif.

The USDA and criminal investigation are still under way, but it appears the USDA vets were not notified of the downer cows in the California plant.

Why the delay?

But the Humane Society of the United States itself was called on the hot seat during a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, too, for sitting on investigation details and an undercover video for more than two months before submitting information to the USDA.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said the undercover video at the Hallmark/Westland plant was a “sharp contrast” to humane animal handling standards and deserves attention, but questioned why the humane society “could allow this abuse to continue for almost four months.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer also said he was “extremely disappointed in how the humane society has handled this process.”

“If their mission is to allow, or to provide humane treatment of animals out there, there’s a simple fact that if they took this film in October, they didn’t contact the USDA until after they released it to the press at the end of January,” Schafer said, speaking to media Feb. 22.

“So for four months, theoretically, animals were not being properly treated, and the humane society stood by and allowed it to happen.”

Call for legislation

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said the USDA needs to establish an “unambiguous no-downer policy that will also help protect crippled animals from egregious abuse,” and he’s also calling on Congress to pass legislation to strengthen U.S. farm animal welfare laws.

The USDA issued an emergency rule in 2004 preventing downed cows from being slaughtered for human consumption. The rule was suspended in 2007.

The HSUS lawsuit alleges the slaughter of downed cattle “involves extreme animal cruelty and jeopardizes human health” because the animals are at greater risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

Boyle takes issue with the group’s latter statement, saying, “HSUS would have the American public believe that somehow an animal with a broken ankle is at some dramatically increased risk of BSE.”

“How is it possible that an animal could be initially evaluated as healthy, become nonambulatory in the next moment and somehow become 50 times more likely to have BSE, as HSUS alleges?”

The USDA’s meat recall was a “Class II,” which means there’s only a very remote possibility that improper handling of animals at the plant pose a risk to human health, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer.


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