How now ‘downer’ cow?

To join the Humane Society’s lobbying campaign to urge better USDA supervision at slaughterhouses, go to

If you have the stomach for it, you’ve probably already seen the gruesome video footage shot by the Humane Society of the United States showing “downer” cows (ones too sick to stand or walk) being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and zapped with electric prods in an effort to get them to stand and pass inspection—i.e., be approved for human consumption—by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The ugly tape was shot by an undercover activist at the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Chino, Calif., and it led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history. The bad news from the beginning, aside from the obvious abuse of these animals, was that most of the 143 million pounds of ground beef recalled as a result of the video had already likely been sold and/or eaten in any of a thousand burger joints and taquerias; made up into soups, sauces and frozen foods; served up to kids in sloppy Joes as part of the National School Lunch Program.

And yes, some of the recalled beef was served up right here in Sacramento. At least one local food distributor, Sysco Food Services of Sacramento, contacted more than 100 food establishments urging them to return products that used the meat in question.

There’s a reason why meat from downer cows isn’t supposed to enter the food chain—it’s more likely to carry the bovine spongiform encephalopathy agent that causes mad-cow disease, a fatal brain disorder in humans. And it goes without saying that meat from downer cows and others can become tainted in other ways, too, including with fecal matter, thereby increasing the possibility of the deadly E. coli bacteria entering the food supply. Though the USDA and the powerful livestock-industry lobby would lead us to believe that downer cows were outlawed from the food chain in 2003, the subversive video proves this is hardly the case.

Why? Because meaningful enforcement of regulations prohibiting behavior, such as was evidenced in the video, is a joke. The pressure is on at slaughterhouses to “keep the line moving” and to make the most of its “inventory,” including cows that any sentient human being would consider a downer cow.

Anna Lappé, co-author with her mother Frances Moore Lappé of the Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet wrote recently that the Chino incident is “the inevitable outcome of a system in which animal abuse and health concerns are predictable byproducts of following the prime directive—maximizing profit.” She notes also that a “revolving door” exists between those at the government agencies which oversee food safety (like the USDA) and the powerful agricultural and livestock industry, e.g., the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The Humane Society and others have called for the USDA to improve oversight, tighten up regulations and eliminate loopholes created by inconsistent enforcement. We wholeheartedly agree and urge readers to join the effort (see column note) to press our government to better ensure that downer cows never again enter our food supply.