"Legislation is in play with the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act. It's time to enact it," said Julie Janovsky of the animal rights group Farm Sanctuary.
The proposed legislation, which has been defeated in Congress several times in recent years, would prohibit the slaughter of all "downed" animals, including pigs, sheep, and other livestock.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has outlawed the use of what the meat industry calls "downer" cattle -- cows that are too weak or sick to stand -- for human consumption. But the ban does not apply to animals other than cattle, Farm Sanctuary says on its NoDowners.org Web site.
The group, which was launched in 1986 with the rescue of a downed sheep from a pile of dead animals, reiterated its demand for an all-encompassing ban this week, following the release of an undercover video that shows workers kicking and gouging sick cows to force them walk.
Many downed animals lie -- sometimes in piles of their own feces -- without food, water, or veterinary care, until it's convenient for companies to move them to slaughter. The undercover video shows downed cattle being pushed with forklifts and dragged with metal chains attached from their legs to heavy machinery.
The video, released this week by the U.S. Humane Society, raised questions about the safety of the meat produced at the Westland/Hallmark plant and forced authorities to order the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, enough to feed 2.1 million Americans for a year.
It was the largest beef recall in U.S. history.
According to the USDA, tens of millions of pounds of that beef was already used to make hamburgers and tacos for school lunches and other official nutrition programs.
"The USDA hasn't protected our nation's children who already ate the burgers, and other downed animal products," said Janvosky in urging the USDA to strengthen its rules on the slaughter of downed animals.
Farm Sanctuary researchers who have documented numerous cases of abuse of sick animals suggest there is no way to prevent suppliers from marketing the downed animal meat unless Congress takes action to fix the USDA's loopholes.
"I wish we were as shocked as the USDA claims to be by these blatant acts of animal cruelty," said Jeff Lydon, the group's executive director. "But our experience suggests that continued violations under the current system are inevitable."
Humane Society activists have made similar observations about the USDA's role in assuring the safety of food sold to U.S. consumers.
"How can so many downers have been mistreated day after day within a USDA oversight system that was present at the [Westland/Hallmark] plant?" wondered Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, in a statement.
Pacelle holds that there is an urgent need for "more boots on the ground at the plant."
USDA officials said last week they had started an inquiry and suspended Westland/Hallmark as a supplier to federal nutrition programs. For its part, the company has decided to stop operating until the inquiry is over.
On Sunday, the beef industry backed the USDA's recall, but said it was doing so "as a precautionary measure."
"We can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe," said James Reagan of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council. "We have multiple interlocking safeguards in place in every beef processing plant so that if one is bypassed, the other systems continue."
Despite such assurances, it seems that the industry is increasingly failing to win consumer confidence.
This latest scandal has raised questions about the USDA's dual and potentially conflicting roles of ensuring food safety and promoting the U.S. meat industry.
"We've had scores, if not hundreds, of phone calls, letters, and e-mails with the USDA over the years related specifically to downed animal concerns and their reaction is about as predictable as the cruelty witnessed at Westland/Hallmark," said Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, who has investigated stockyards and slaughterhouses documenting violations of USDA policy and state anti-cruelty laws for 22 years.
"We can only hope that Congress's reaction to public outrage is swift and thorough," said Janovsky.
© 2008 One World