On Tuesday afternoon the Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman made the bold statement that the United States would no longer allow downer animals into the human food chain as a response to the recent case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and the American Meat Institute (AMI) are in support of the additional measures, although they lobbied against the ban prior to the presumptive positive BSE finding.
USDA and NCBA officials say this latest precaution aims to provide continued confidence to consumers and trading partners, explains Chandler Keys, NCBA vice president of governmental affairs.
Earlier this year, legislation that would require euthanization of non-ambulatory animals arriving at meat plants - no matter what the cause - was rejected by Congress. AMI and many other organizations, opposed this legislation claiming the move would have hampered U.S. surveillance for BSE. "Indeed, had this law been in effect, it is unlikely that BSE would have been detected in the cow at issue in Washington State because surveillance occurs at the plant level - not on the farm," says AMI Foundation President James H. Hodges.
Numerous organizations - including animal rights groups that seek a vegetarian society - were calling for a prohibition on non-ambulatory livestock in the meat supply. "While this may 'sound good,' such a prohibition is not supported by science, would be a waste of perfectly safe beef and would indeed be counter-productive to USDA's BSE surveillance," Hodges adds.
Test and hold will be applied partially
Keys went on to say the legislation put forth in Congress had not gone through the proper rulemaking process and was flawed, leaving NCBA no choice but to be against the ban. However, "times do change and you must factor in new ideas," Keys adds. AMI released two statements on Dec. 30, one saying that downer beef was safe and then after Veneman's announcement, a statement from J. Patrick Boyle, AMI President and CEO, supporting the "extraordinary measures that go well beyond international standards in an effort to protect cattle herds and to bolster consumer confidence in beef safety."
Originally NCBA worried that if downer animals were taken out of the system, that BSE surveillance measures would suffer. However, USDA Chief Veterinary Officer Ron DeHaven says surveillance won't decrease and will be done on farms or rendering facilities.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors will no longer mark cattle tested for BSE as "inspected and passed" until confirmation is received that the animals have, in fact, tested negative for BSE. This new policy will be in the form of an interpretive rule that will be published in the Federal Register.
Some cattle associations favor the test and hold process on all of the nearly 200,000 animals classified as "downers" each year. USDA decided it would be too cumbersome to test and hold all of those cases.
Animal husbandry emphasized
NCBA hopes that this legislation will encourage producers to keep their animals as healthy as possible since any animal that is downed on the farm will not be allowed to capture any market value.
Keys reiterated that the NCBA policy has always been about best husbandry practices. "We have a responsibility to use and practice the most up-to-date practices that when animals do present themselves for slaughter, they are in a healthy position," he says.
Downer animals are a minute population of slaughtered cattle. Keys says only 0.1814% of the total slaughter are non-ambulatory animals. But animals injury in transit is inevitable and the test and hold procedure will be applied to those that do make it to the slaughter house.