Government officials are right to point out that it is too early to panic over a single cow in America diagnosed with mad cow disease, although the two dozen countries that have already banned imports of American beef, as the United States did to Canada when one cow there was found with the disease, don’t seem to feel that way. However, the handling of the sick cow in Washington raises troubling weaknesses in the American slaughter and meat processing system.
There are conflicting reports of whether the animal, a 4-year-old Holstein from a dairy farm, could walk or was, in industry jargon, a downer. Early reports said the animal was a downer, but the owner of the slaughterhouse where the animal was killed said he saw it walking. Further complicating the matter is that the cow was said to have been injured during birthing, therefore not necessarily exhibiting signs of mad cow disease. The animal was inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel and approved for slaughter on Dec. 9.
No matter the state of the animal when it died, it raised enough alarm that it was tested and found to have the disease, the only such finding in the United States.
This has left many to wonder why downer cows are slaughtered and their meat sent into the food supply. “It is just wrong, in our opinion,” Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, told The Washington Post. “When you have a downed animal, it shows it is unhealthy in some form. At some point, you have to judge that slaughter is a bad idea.”
Ms. Donley is not the only one to hold this point of view. Some slaughterhouses refuse to handle such animals, and meat from downers cannot be sold to the federal school lunch program, run by the USDA, the same agency now trying to assure people American beef is safe. Wendy’s and other restaurant chains also refuse to buy meat from such animals. The Senate, in fact, passed legislation earlier this year barring from the food supply meat from sick or injured animals. The House, however, narrowly defeated the measure and it was struck from the conference bill funding the Agriculture Department for 2004. The Senate, however, has yet to approve the bill.
Oddly, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association argued that allowing such animals into slaughterhouses allows cases of mad cow disease, such as this one, to be caught. “The inspection system works, because we caught this cow,” Tom Ellestad, who runs Vern’s Moses Lake Meats, where the sick cow was killed, told The Post. This is confounding, and as is now evident, expensive logic.
Because the sick Holstein, minus the brain and spinal tissue known to carry the infection, was made into hamburger, all the meat processed that day must be recalled. That meat -10,000 pounds from 20 cows – was sent to perhaps eight states and Guam, making its recall costly and confusing – because the public keeps being told there’s nothing wrong with the meat. Still, the cost is little compared with the damage to the beef industry, which was having a strong year otherwise, and, of course, costs more than it would have to kill the sick cow and dispose of it safely. (Treating the cows’ ailments, albeit futile in this case, never seems to enter the discussion about how to deal with downer cows.)
There are other problems with the current system as well. Although brain and spinal tissue must be separated from beef that is to be sold for consumption, that process does not always work. A federal survey last year found 35 percent of meat processed by a technique called advanced recovery where usable meat is mechanically scraped from the bone contains spinal and nervous system tissue. Vern’s Moses Lake Meats did not use such a process. Another weakness is that brain and spinal tissue is used to make animal feed, although not for cattle.
It may not be time to panic, but it is time for reform.