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The New York Times this morning reports that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), noting that the regulation would end an exemption that allowed animals to sick or injured to stand or walk "into the food supply if a government veterinarian inspected the animal and deemed it fit for slaughter."

Downer cows are believed to be at greater risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

According to USDA Secretary Edward Schafer, the exemption had been used fewer than 1,000 times last year, when some 34 million cattle were slaughtered. However, it became controversial when a videotape became public showing employees at a west coast beef supplier using electric prods to get downer cattle into the slaughterhouse, where they ended up in the food supply. Nobody has been reported to have gotten sick because of the downer cows, but confusion and controversy nevertheless were created, and the videotape resulted in the largest beef recall in the history of the US.

According to the Times, "The Agriculture Department said eliminating the exemption for downer cows would make inspection procedures more efficient and reduce the incentive for meat companies to send sickly cows to market. The department will seek public comment before completing the rule …The decision was hailed by animal welfare groups and members of Congress who had pushed to eliminate the exemption."

The Washington Post notes that "in January 2004, then-USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced a ban on meat from all downer cattle. But later that month, the agency created the downer exception in written guidance to its veterinary medical officers. The exception was codified in a final rule in 2007."

KC's View:
Consumers – as well as the food industry – should be vigilant, watching the USDA to make sure that yet another loophole isn’t created by some politician or bureaucrat with priorities other than public safety on his or her mind.

Now that the USDA is doing the right thing with the ban on downer cattle, it ought to take one more step in the right direction and allow meat suppliers to do their own BSE testing – using certified procedures – and saying "BSE-free" on their labels.