A Downer Question: Should Food Safety and Livestock Welfare Be Separate Issues?

downed-cow.jpgIf 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)

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11 thoughts on “A Downer Question: Should Food Safety and Livestock Welfare Be Separate Issues?”

  1. I see food safety and animal welfare as very closely linked. I doubt that anything raised in today’s factory farms is really safe to eat after having seen footage of those disgusting places. Like Paul McCartney said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” Allowing downer cows, diseased pigs with tumors, chickens with open sores and crippled legs, etc. to be slaughtered and eaten is very common practice in factory farming. There is nothing ethical or sustainable about the way animals are raised for food today.

    This recall is just one example that the way we raise and grow food in this country, and our lack of any real control over it, is scary and in need of reform.

  2. Meredith Melnick

    This is so true, Megan. But what I found particularly disturbing about this story was our implicit sanction of sending this to feed disadvantaged children. Of course, we are in control of our own decision-making (to a point – who among us rejects a well-meaning host’s meal?), but what about those who are not able to say no to such food?
    You are right to call for reform. So far, Hillary Clinton is the only 2008 presidential candidate with a food safety plan. She announced a pledge of 1.5 billion in annual food safety funding and a measure to combine the USDA and FDA food safety departments into one independent agency. You can see more here: http://www.hillaryclinton.com/news/release/view/?id=6055

  3. Meredith, I think this was a great article…very insightful, and I’m right there with you on the post itself.

    I don’t want to get too political here – not the time and place. But…while I think that Hillary’s right that the food-safety aspect of the USDA needs to be pulled into a separate agency from the promote-whatever-America-grows aspect of the agency, there’s plenty to be cautious of when it comes to her.
    Just three examples here:

    – Hillary appointed Joy Phillipi, former president of a the National Pork Producers Council โ€” the main trade group representing nasty CAFO operators โ€” as the co-chair of Rural Americans for Hillary.

    – According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2007-2008 election cycle, Hillary was the #1 senate recipient of donations from all of the following industries: agribusiness, food and beverages, food processing and sales, food stores, crop production, sugar cane and sugar beets, restaurants and drinking establishments, and lobbyists

    – Her campaign recently held a โ€œRural Americans for Hillaryโ€ lunch and campaign briefing at the Washington, DC offices of Troutman Sanders, the lobbying firm of agribusiness giant Monsanto.

    The BILL Clinton administration was shockingly cozy with agribusiness. Is it fair to hold Hillary accountable for that? Maybe not, but I’d like to see her distance herself from those policies a little more, rather than cozying up to lobbyists as she has.

    Like I say, I agree with your main point – I’m just a little more skeptical of both her willingness and her ability (given the connections) to make real change.

  4. Meredith Melnick

    Thanks for this info, Ali. I am responding because I see that my comment could be construed as an endorsement of her candidacy, which is not what I meant. I do not have the desire (or authority!) to endorse here. I simply wanted to convey the fact – it is a fact – that Hillary is the only candidate who has outlined a food safety plan for her first 100 days in office. I looked at the platforms of all of the current candidates (yes, Ron Paul too…) and she was the only one with an outlined plan.

    As for these back room dealings you mention, that sounds awful. Monsanto is public enemy #2 in my book. But whether you support her candidacy or not, it can only be a good thing to see a major politician publicly express an appropriate level of concern and attention to food safety.

  5. I’m with you on that. I actually emailed the other candidates after this story broke to say “what’s your plan?” Obama put out a statement that – as Bill Marler noted – need a little more meat on its bones. To my knowledge, McCain still says nothing about it.

    And of course I’m curious who public enemy #1 is? Meat industry in general?

  6. That’s great! Let us know if you get a response. I’d be really curious to hear it.

    For me, public enemy #1 for food issues (and possibly also in general) is definitely the Bush Admin as a whole. They’ve reduced the FDA, USDA, and EPA budgets to laughable, unworkable numbers. They keep pushing corn-based ethanol despite glaring problems, etc. Who are your public enemies of sensible food policy?

  7. It isn’t an either or. What is best for the animals, raised naturally with the right diet and humane conditions, pasture, humane slaughter, is best for the eaters; healthier food, safer food, healthier environment. The two are not separate. Neither is the welfare of the workers in this mix, who are often illegal immigrants working under horrendous conditions with few benefits, many injuries and no support.

  8. The Humane Society was probably trying to be careful, not wanting to go public until they had a water-tight case. If they could have acted sooner, I’m sure they would have. Standing up against the meat business is risky but they had the hard data. Well done.

    The bigger question is why didn’t the USDA or local inspectors have a clue?

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