If you’ve been paying attention to food news over the past month, you have surely heard of the downer cow debacle between the Humane Society and the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company. In shocking, secret footage recorded by Humane Society activists at the Chino, California livestock farm, handlers are shown using electric prods, high-pressure hoses and forklifts to rouse “downer” cows to their feet so that they can pass USDA inspection.
A downer cow is an animal that is too ill to stand up on its own. After the Mad Cow Disease scares of the late 1990s, Congress passed legislation that prohibited these animals from entering the food supply because of a slightly increased risk of spreading disease into the human population. But in September of 2007, Congress added a loophole to the measure, allowing downer cows into the food supply if a veterinarian deemed it safe. This measure was included to allow otherwise healthy animals with broken legs or torn ligaments into the food supply, but in fact opened the floodgates to profit-minded decisions in bovine health.
Much has been made of the fact that 30% of the shipment that included these particular downer cows filmed was destined for federally-run nutrition program, including the plates of low-income school children who take advantage of free lunch programs. For an in depth look at the socio-economic and children’s rights implications of this scandal, have a look at this excellent article over at The Ethicurean.
But beyond the incredibly important issue of the socio-economic food division, there are two major but separate complaints leveled against the USDA and their complicity in this incident: the issues of food safety and of animal welfare. Since the scandal first appeared on the radar, the USDA has focused some of their blame on the Humane Society because the group held the footage for four months while hired prosecutors investigated. This investigation led to a law suit against the USDA that the Humane Society delivered on Wednesday. During those four months between the video’s filming and its entry into the public sphere, millions of pounds of affected beef were sent to school lunch programs and grocery stores. The Humane Society says that its mission is to protect animal welfare, not to enforce food safety. Of course, this is right. And indeed it is a cynical attack for the USDA to – as Rep Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) told the New York Times – “[blame] the whistle-blower for the agency’s own irresponsible behavior.” But did the Humane Society have a responsibility to report the food safety issue? Putting aside the incompatibility with H.S.’s mission statement, as a group with California citizens, was there a duty to come forward?
Some say yes. For many food advocates, animal welfare and food safety go hand in hand. Legislation that helps one, generally helps the other. Happy, healthy animals that lead natural lives make more nutritious food. Abused, restricted animals require synthetic hormone injections to grow and an abundance of the antibiotics that encourage drug-resistant superbugs to stave off disease. Animals that are not served clean water and good, appropriate food get ailments like foot-and-mouth disease. Yes, by bringing this disaster the fore of agricultural discussions in America, the Humane Society has helped arguments in favor of improving both animal welfare and food safety. But by bringing up the issue sooner, the same result would likely have been achieved.
With the new lawsuit against the USDA (and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, in particular), downer cows will likely be once again banned from our plates. This is not only good news for food safety, but should also help protect animals from the kind of treatment that results in injury and illness.
As for the recalled beef, it was buried in several landfills around the country – where it belongs.
(Photo courtesy of the United States Humane Society)