WASHINGTON, May 20, 2008- One day after I was sworn in as Secretary of Agriculture, I learned of the illegal acts of inhumane handling that took place at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, California. I immediately called upon the Office of the Inspector General and the Food Safety and Inspection Service to determine how this happened and what could be done in the future to ensure that animals are treated humanely.
I told the American people and the United States Congress that I was going to treat this issue with the utmost urgency, and do everything in my power to appropriately address this problem and work to strengthen consumer confidence in our food supply. We found clear evidence that rules weren't being followed which resulted in USDA calling for the largest beef recall in American history – a clear sign that we took these inhumane violations seriously. Rules have purpose, and when you violate them, there are consequences.
I felt it was important to take proactive steps to assess the state of humane handling activities in cattle slaughter establishments while the OIG and FSIS investigations are ongoing, and on February 28, I instructed FSIS to initiate a number of interim action items related to inhumane handling.
The 60-day enhanced surveillance period concluded on May 6 and while we are still analyzing those results, today I am announcing that USDA will begin working on a proposed rule to prohibit the slaughter of all disabled non-ambulatory cattle, also know as "downer cattle." In other words, I am calling for the end of the exceptions in the so called "downer rule."
Last year, of the nearly 34 million cattle that were slaughtered, under 1,000 cattle that were re-inspected were actually approved by the veterinarian for slaughter. This represents less than 0.003 percent of cattle slaughtered annually. As you can see, this number is minimal.
The current rule, which focuses on cattle that went down after they have already passed pre-slaughter inspection, has been challenging to communicate and has, at times, been confusing to consumers.
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, I believe it is sound policy to simplify this matter by initiating a complete ban on the slaughter of downer cattle that go down after initial inspection.
FSIS will draft a proposed rule to remove the exception that allows certain injured cattle to proceed to slaughter. This action is expected to provide additional efficiencies to food safety inspection by removing the step that requires inspection workforce to determine when non-ambulatory cattle are safe to slaughter.
The decision to ban all non-ambulatory cattle from slaughter will positively impact the humane handling of cattle by reducing the incentive to send marginally weakened cattle to market.
Cattle producers, transporters and slaughter establishments alike will be encouraged to enhance humane handling practices, as there will no longer be any market for cattle that are too weak to rise or walk on their own.
In February, I said that we would look into every option, and more importantly, we would listen and base our decisions on sound policy. I believe this announcement today strikes the right balance, and will benefit our efforts to not only improve consumer confidence, but improve the humane handling of animals.