Sunday, February 24, 2008

More Examples Of How Unsafe The Meat Supply Is

More Examples Of How
Unsafe The Meat Supply Is

From Patricia Doyle, PhD

USDA Inspectors - Meat Safety Is Threatened
By Gillian Flaccus

(AP) -- Sometimes, government inspectors responsible for examining slaughterhouse cattle for mad cow disease and other ills are so short-staffed that they find themselves peering down from catwalks at hundreds of animals at once, looking for such telltale signs as droopy ears, stumbling gait, and facial paralysis. The ranks of inspectors are so thin that slaughterhouse workers often figure out when "surprise" visits are about to take place, and make sure they are on their best behavior.

These allegations were raised by former and current US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors in the wake of the biggest beef recall in history -- 143 million pounds [about 65 000 tons) from a California meatpacker accused of sending lame "downer" cows to slaughter.

The inspectors told The Associated Press that they fear chronic staff shortages in their ranks are allowing sick cows to get into the nation's food supply, endangering the public. According to USDA's own figures, the inspector ranks nationwide had vacancy rates of 10 percent or more in 2006-07. "They're not covering all their bases. There's a possibility that something could go through because you don't have the manpower to check everything," said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinary inspector at a plant in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), acknowledged that the department has been struggling to fill vacancies but denied the food supply is at risk. "Every single animal must past antemortem inspection before it's presented for slaughter, so only healthy animals are going to pass," she said. "We do have continuous inspection at slaughter facilities." ... Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president and chief executive, said the video was filmed over a 6-week period last fall [2007] and all the abuse happened when USDA inspectors were not present. "The inspection system obviously has enormous gaps if these routine abuses could happen," he said. "The inspector would show up and if there were downed animals, the workers would try to get them up before the inspectors got there."

Generally, downer cows -- those too sickly to stand, even with coaxing -- are banned from the food supply under federal regulations. Downer cows carry a higher risk of mad cow disease. And because sickly animals typically wallow in feces and have weakened immune systems, downer cows are more likely to carry _E. coli_ and _Salmonella_, too. Veterinary inspector looks for such symptoms as an unsteady gait, swollen lymph nodes, sores, and poor muscle tone. ... Inspectors whose job is to make sure that the cattle are treated humanely said staff shortages mean they are forced to adopt routine hours for their checks, removing the element of surprise. USDA numbers show anywhere between 10 and 12 percent of inspector and veterinarian positions at poultry, beef, and pork slaughterhouses nationwide were vacant between October 2006 and September 2007. In some regions, including Colorado and Texas, a major beef-producing state, the rate hovered around 15 percent. In New York, vacancy rates hit nearly 22 percent last July [2007]. ... At 2 packing houses in Nebraska, veterinarians monitor up to 700 head of cattle at a time for signs of illness -- just enough to make sure all the cows are standing, said one veteran inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. The inspector has worked for 15 years as an inspector at 2 plants in Lexington and Grand Island, Nebraska One-quarter of the inspection positions at one of his plants have been vacant now for 2 years, he said. "There are so many vet shortages out in the field right now, they can't keep it properly staffed," the inspector said. "When they come into these big slaughter facilities, they'll put 200 head in a pen. All you can tell is they're moving."

Friedlander, who left the USDA in 1995, said he recalled checking up to 220 cows an hour by standing on a catwalk above a pen of hundreds of animals. He would also check to see if cows could walk by having workers drive them from one pen to another, 6 or 7 cows abreast. "If you're a vet, you see the 1st cow, you might see the 2nd cow, but the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th cow you might not see," he said. "How can we tell if there's any facial paralysis or droopy ears? You can't tell."

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NIAA Condemns Bad Animal Handling


The National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) condemns the downed animal treatment shown on a video reportedly taken at a packing company in California. Related to the same incident, NIAA applauds action taken to make involved workers responsible for their actions by charging them with felony and misdemeanor counts.

"The abuse recorded is an isolated incident and is not common practice within animal agriculture. NIAA stands for responsible treatment of livestock and therefore does not condone this incident," Scott Stuart, Chairman of NIAA, states. "We urge the USDA to fully investigate the downed animal incident and the undercover investigation. In addition, NIAA recommends that animal agriculture immediately report violations of food safety regulations and inhumane treatment of livestock to appropriate authorities." Stuart points out that the importance of animal care and well-being in every step of the production chain-is the focus of NIAA's upcoming annual meeting, 1-3 Apr 2008, in Indianapolis, Indiana.>

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One can be sympathetic with the position taken by NIAA but it is now up to the industry and the USDA (see next report) to transparently determine how frequent this problem is and to clean it up if necessary. The Chino downer handling was a nightmare for any viewer. - Mod.MHJ

USDA Unsure If CA Plant Only One Using Downers

By Christopher Doering


(Reuters) -- Days after the largest meat recall in US history, the head of the Agriculture Department (USDA) said officials are reviewing why a California plant processed unfit cattle, and that it was too early to determine whether it was an incident specific to the facility. The USDA announced on Sunday [17 Feb 2008] that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co was recalling 143 million pounds (65 million kilos) of meat, mostly beef, after plant workers were caught on videotape forcing unfit cattle into the slaughterhouse.

"We are reviewing our procedures, how we work with the plant, how our inspectors work, our staffing needs," Agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, told reporters at the USDA's annual Outlook Forum. "And until we find out, we can't assess other plants, and we can't say ... this is an isolated incident or an ongoing practice."

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A Pandora's box has been opened with this video but I expect that
much good will come from it once the initial embarrassments are
behind us. - Mod.MHJ

Patricia A. Doyle DVM, PhD
Bus Admin, Tropical Agricultural Economics
Univ of West Indies

Please visit my "Emerging Diseases" message board at:
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Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa
Go with God and in Good Health


by Gene Bauston
art/Eric Spitler

A sick cow, too weak to stand, is pulled off of a truck by a tractor and chain, then falls four feet to the ground at a stockyard. A frail, day old calf is dragged through an auction ring by a back leg, while another calf, nearly comatose, is left in a corner to die. These are not isolated incidents. Across the United States, downed animals, animals too sick or weak to even stand, are being marketed and slaughtered for human food. They suffer horribly at stockyards and slaughterhouses, and their use in the human food chain poses a threat to human health.

It is practically impossible to handle and transport downed animals humanely. Even industry groups, including Central Livestock and Empire Livestock, admit, " is near impossible to unload and/or move downed animals in a humane manner without first euthanizing them." Downed animals are commonly moved by the most convenient, though least humane methods. They are dragged with wenches and chains or pushed with tractors and forklifts, procedures which cause injuries ranging from bruises and abrasions to broken bones and torn ligaments. When former United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Edward Madigan saw videotape showing downed animals being moved by these methods, he said he was "disgusted and repelled." Incapable of getting to food or water troughs, downed animals endure hours or days without receiving these basic needs. In addition, they are denied necessary veterinary attention, and many die of gross neglect.

Most downed animals are victims of the dairy industry -- either worn out milk cows or fragile baby calves. Too often, dairy farmers ship dying animals to the stockyard in order to avoid the cost of disposing of dead animals on the farm. In response to nationwide news coverage criticizing industry's irresponsible mistreatment of downed animals, Hoards Dairyman wrote, "The black eye the livestock industry got over the widespread 'downer cow' publicity was self-inflicted. Frankly, we got what we deserved... Because of that unfortunate exposure, the image of livestock people has been tarnished, and consumers have yet another reason not to eat meat... There's no excuse for shipping animals which cannot walk." In addition to downed dairy cattle, incapacitated pigs, sheep, goats, and horses are also sold for slaughter. Responding to media pressure, Pork Report warned, "Producers should not 'push their problems' on trucks and hope to receive some salvage value for the animal or use the stockyards as a disposal system for this type of animal."

Marketing and slaughtering downed animals for food poses a serious threat to consumers. An article from Meat and Poultry magazine cited university research and reported, "...lame cattle usually have higher levels of bacteria on their carcasses. Lame animals spend more time lying down, which increases the likelihood they will be contaminated with fecal matter." Of course, downed animals spend all of their time on the ground. In addition to an increased risk of bacterial contamination, there is scientific evidence which indicates that some downed cattle in the United States may be afflicted with a variant of "Mad Cow Disease" (BSE or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). When the population of a Wisconsin mink ranch was decimated by an outbreak of transmissible mink encephalopathy, scientists hypothesized that the disease was caused by the mink¹s diet -- a diet comprised primarily of downed dairy cows. After researching the incident, published findings "suggest[ed] the presence of an unrecognized BSE-like disease in the United States."

Attempting to address the downed animal problem and to allay public concerns, many stockyards and slaughterhouses have stopped accepting downed animals. This 'no downer' approach has caused farmers and livestock handlers to take steps to prevent downed animals in the first place. Commenting on this, dairy veterinarian Lester Friedlander stated, "This winter the slaughterhouses in this area stopped accepting downed cows... I have been very impressed with the response my [dairy] clients have shown since they have not been able to sell downed cows. I have been called to attend more of the downed cows to provide veterinary assistance and to humanely euthanize the hopeless cases... In short, not selling cows as downers has not hurt my clients but has re-focused attention in the right direction -- prevention and rehabilitation."

There is a growing consensus, even among industry representatives, that downed animals should not be marketed or slaughtered for human food as an article from Beef Today, entitled "Zero Tolerance for Downer Cows," indicates. The article begins, "A downer cow in the sale barn aisle is not a pretty sight. For starters, it's a sure bet that everyone involved, including the cow, loses. To compound the problem, it is highly visible fuel for animal rights organizations." After providing examples of stockyards that have implemented 'no downer' policies, whereby they do not market downed animals, the article ends with a quote from a Colorado beef specialist, "A downer animal is a violation of our responsibility as stewards of livestock. We need to prevent these situations for a lot of reasons -- the most important being, it's the right thing to do."

Unfortunately, while some within the livestock industry have acted responsibly, others continue to market downed animals, sometimes in violation of their own stated "no downer" policies. The USDA surveyed stockyards across the U.S. and found the livestock industry's self-policing to be flawed. In documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the USDA reported, "Though many market representatives responded without hesitation that they would turn downers away from their doors, it became evident that some stockyards did not have a firm 'no downer' policy in place and would make exceptions..."

Also of concern, the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have failed to grant a petition filed by Farm Sanctuary to prohibit the slaughter of downed animals for human food. Citing federal laws, the petition argues that downed animals are "diseased" by definition, and therefore asserts that these animals cannot be used for human food. Responding to this, the USDA shockingly asserted that the law did not prohibit diseased animals from being used for human food. (Letters are currently needed to urge that this petition be granted. Please see sidebar below for details.)

Although thousands of downed animals are slaughtered across America every year, these animals represent a very small percentage of all livestock slaughtered. No farmer depends on the sale of downed animals for a livelihood. In addition, the vast majority of downed animals sent to stockyards and slaughterhouses could be prevented with basic management and handling improvements on the farm and in transportation. According to an article in Meat & Poultry magazine, "Ninety percent of all downers are preventable... the industry can eliminate downers by euthanizing them."

Although the livestock industry has been aware of downed animal suffering for decades, this problem has not been corrected through voluntary measures. Unscrupulous downed animal dealers and slaughterhouse operators are circumventing others' "no downer" policies, exploiting a niche market, and undercutting voluntary efforts to resolve this problem through preventative measures. It is increasingly clear that this problem will continue in the absence of government action.

In addition to the petition urging a prohibition on downed animal slaughter that is currently before the FDA, the Downed Animal Protection Act has been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. While the petition seeks a prohibition on the slaughter of downed animals for human food, the Downed Animal Protection Act requires the humane euthanasia of downed animals in the marketing channels. With this issue at the slaughterhouse, the legislative proposal addresses it in marketing channels (i.e. at auctions and in transit). Both the petition and the legislative effort ultimately seek to remove the market for downed animals, and thereby provide a strong and clear incentive for farmers and livestock handlers to focus on providing better care and preventing downed animals in the first place.

Gene Bauston is the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. He holds a degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University.

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