The U.S. government Saturday permanently banned the slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, seeking to further minimize the chance that mad cow disease could enter the food supply.
The Agriculture Department proposed the ban last year after the biggest beef recall in U.S. history. The recall involved a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse and “downer” cows. The Obama administration finalized the ban Saturday.
“As part of our commitment to public health, our Agriculture Department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don’t find their way into the food supply,” President Obama said in his weekly radio and video address.
Those kinds of cows pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease. They are also susceptible to infections from bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli, because the animals wallow in their own waste. The recall also raised concerns about the treatment of cattle and came after an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States videotaped workers abusing downer cows to force them to slaughter.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the ban was “a step forward for both food safety and the standards for humane treatment of animals.”
The Humane Society’s president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, said he was pleased that the government “is putting a stop to the inhumane and reckless practice of dragging and otherwise abusing downer cows in order to slaughter them for human consumption.”
A partial ban on downer cows was in place; it resulted from the nation’s first case of mad cow disease in 2003.
But there was a loophole. If a cow collapsed after passing inspection, government inspectors allowed the animal into the food supply if it had an acute injury, such as a broken leg, but showed no signs of central nervous disorder that might indicate the presence of mad cow disease.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In people, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease.
A massive outbreak of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom that peaked in 1993 was blamed for the deaths of 180,000 cattle and more than 150 people.
There have been three confirmed cases of BSE in the United States: in a Canadian-born cow in 2003 in Washington state, in 2005 in Texas and in 2006 in Alabama. The George W. Bush administration in 2006 dramatically scaled back testing for mad cow disease.
No illnesses have been linked to those cows in the United States. There have been three cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease confirmed in people living in the United States, but those were linked to meat products in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.