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1408 PD: Downer cows are not for dinner

Ronald F. Eustice Published on 29 September 2008

Earlier this year, we saw “downer cows” – those too sick or injured to move – being shocked, sprayed with high-pressure hoses and fork-lifted to get them on their feet to be slaughtered at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, California.

The video images, which were viewed by millions on national television, were enough to convert backyard barbecue enthusiasts into vegetarians. The undercover video taken by a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) member, who got a job with the meat company, created media frenzy and resulted in the biggest beef recall ever. Criminal charges were filed against some of the workers, and the plant shut down.

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The reaction of cattle producers who viewed the video ranged from dismay and disbelief that animals were receiving such treatment, to anger and disgust towards those responsible, including the producers that shipped the cows to market. Buoyed by the extensive publicity generated by the videos, the livestock industry must be prepared for increased efforts by anti-animal use advocates to employ undercover tactics to expose controversial industry practices.

In response to the fiasco, the USDA has recently announced a proposed rule to amend federal meat inspection regulations to initiate a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle that become non-ambulatory after initial inspection by Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspection program personnel.

Under the proposed rule, all cattle that are non-ambulatory at any time prior to slaughter, including those that become disabled after passing ante-mortem inspection, will be condemned and properly disposed of.

The new regulations will eliminate the loophole that allowed some disabled cows to be slaughtered even after inspection by a government veterinarian. Currently, non-ambulatory cattle are examined on a case-by-case basis and can be slaughtered if they pass the before-slaughter (ante-mortem) test. Passing the “vet test” means a cow was safe enough for the food supply, which in turn has created the economic incentive for some to get the downer cow to slaughter.

The new rule is intended to maintain consumer confidence in the food supply, eliminate further misunderstanding of the rule and, ultimately, to make a positive impact on the humane handling of cattle.

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How will these new regulations on downer cattle impact dairy producers?
The USDA estimates that last year only 1,000 cows out of 34 million were granted an exception. So the impact on the beef industry’s multibillion-dollar bottom line has been negligible. Strict enforcement of a “no downer” policy in the future will have minimal impact.

But the record recall of 143 million pounds of beef, by far the largest in history, created a “black eye” for the beef and dairy industries. No one became ill from the meat from any of those animals, but had illness resulted, the cost to the industry in lost domestic and export markets could have been staggering. The real cost of the recall for beef and dairy producers was on industry image.

Steps dairy producers can take to make cattle more marketable
The cattle industry paid a huge price because a few cull cows were kept on the farms too long. With proper management, frequent monitoring of animal health conditions and timely marketing of market cows and bulls, producers can protect the value of their investment and avoid embarrassment to the industry.

• Management
With everyday practices such as branding, castration, dehorning and tail-docking on the radar screens of activist groups, livestock producer groups need to be proactive and encourage best management practice changes that are good for the animals, for the consumer, for the environment and for the industry.

Producers must implement herd health programs that address the prevention and treatment of disease. Herd health programs vary depending upon the type of operations and diseases are prevalent in a particular region of the U.S. Cattle producers are encouraged to consult with their veterinarian to establish effective herd health programs. Animal care is often taken for granted, but every producer needs to examine management practices that may negatively impact animal well-being.

• Monitor animal health
Cattle should be observed regularly. Conditions that may result in reduced productivity must be monitored. When it appears that a cow will not return to sound health, it’s best to sell her promptly instead of medicating her. As constraints like increased feed costs and housing considerations become realities, the broader public concerns of animal welfare become even more compelling reasons to use sound management practices and make timely culling decisions – all of which improve beef quality, consumer confidence and dairy profits.

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• Market expeditiously
Physical condition counts. Marketing cows while they are in optimum body condition puts dollars in producers’ pockets. Timely culling decisions increase producer revenues in two ways: by weight and by value (per pound). Culling cows that are in better condition also reduces losses from bruising, abscesses and inflammation. Reduce the possibility that the cow will become non-ambulatory by checking for swollen joints and arthritic conditions.

Nearly half of dairy cows evaluated in the recent National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit conducted in 2007 by the national beef checkoff showed signs of lameness. At 49 percent, more dairy cows were lame in 2007, than the 39 percent in the 1999 audit and the 23 percent in the 1994 audit. Four percent of cattle evaluated in the audit were classified as disabled. Over one percent (1.04 percent) of dairy cattle loads arriving at packing plants contained moribund (approaching death) animals. It is increasingly clear that we need to market cattle more promptly before they become lame or disabled.

• Training and education
All individuals working with livestock should be provided a sound working knowledge of proper care and handling techniques. Ongoing education should be a part of any management plan. Producers are encouraged to follow state or national Dairy Beef Quality Assurance (DBQA) guidelines, funded in part by the beef checkoff. Cattle producers wanting more specific information about proper care and handling of livestock should visit www.bqa.org or contact their state BQA coordinator.

An increasing amount of Spanish language material is also becoming available. The Minnesota Beef Council has recently developed responsible antibiotic use and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance posters as well as a Spanish language Beef Quality Assurance certification program.

An excellent website for information on cattle handling has been developed by Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and can be found at www.grandin.com.

Summary
The beef industry is often challenged to maintain a proactive position on issues of concern to individuals or special interest groups with little or no knowledge of animal agriculture. Years of practical experience have shaped the practices that provide humane care of livestock. Cattlemen are encouraged to take animal welfare seriously. As cattle producers, let us always remind ourselves that our primary objective is to produce safe, wholesome food for the consumer.

Let’s always ask ourselves the question, “Would I serve the milk or meat from that particular animal on my family’s dinner table?” If the answer is “no,” then it is time to stop the truck. PD

Ronald F. Eustice
Executive Director
Minnesota Beef Council

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