Washington When a cow or steer cannot walk to slaughter, it is called a "downer." Some have broken legs, while others may have been trampled in the railroad car on the way to the stockyards. Still others, however, are sick, and at least one -- slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state -- was infected with mad cow disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The case, the first-ever in the United States, has triggered a reappraisal of the inspection procedures that the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration use to regulate meat processing from the slaughterhouse to the rendering plants that transform an animal's last remains into meat and bone meal feed.
For years, consumer groups and some lawmakers have complained about the practice of slaughtering downers. This year, a provision in the Senate's agriculture appropriations bill to ban the practice was removed from the final version of the legislation, which still awaits action by the Senate.
Only in July, the Consumers Union criticized the Agriculture Department in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for not testing enough animals for mad cow disease, given confirmation of a new case in Canada earlier in the year. This year U.S. inspectors have tested 20,000 cattle, out of 40 million slaughtered.
FDA has come under criticism for not having enough inspectors to ensure that rendering plants and mills do not make meal from mammal remains that can be fed to cattle, sheep and other ruminant animals that may contract mad cow disease from contaminated feed.
FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford said currently the compliance rate at 1,826 establishments nationwide "is 99 percent."
Daniel Engeljohn, executive associate for policy analysis and formulation at the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the agency would re-examine its procedures, including plants' growing use of an automated process that in stripping bones clean of meat has been found to mix in bits of brain or spinal chord -- tissues that can become contaminated with mad cow disease. FSIS is the federal agency that performs on-site meat inspection.
By Wednesday, some question had arisen as to whether the diseased animal at Vern's Moses Lake Meats, in Moses Lake, Wash., truly could not walk; Engeljohn said it was unable to stand, and "had been injured while delivering a calf."
Engeljohn said the FSIS veterinarian at the plant determined that the animal -- a 4 or 4 1/2-year-old dairy cow -- "was not diseased, paralyzed or suffering from a neurological condition" like mad cow disease, and was therefore fit for human consumption.
A test ordered by the Agriculture Department's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service 13 days later determined that the cow suffered from bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- mad cow disease. Consuming infected meat can cause a related human illness.
Stan Painter, an FSIS federal meat inspector and National Joint Council Chairman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said inspectors caught a break at Vern's because as a dairy cow, the stricken animal had a plastic tag on its ear identifying its farm of origin: "A lot of farmers will have cattle without tags," Painter said in a telephone interview. "If it hadn't had a tag, or the tag came off, they would never have known."