The Agriculture Department's announcement yesterday of a ban on the sale of meat from ailing "downer" cattle marked a policy turnabout for the Bush administration, coming only a few weeks after the department and allies in the powerful meat lobby blocked an identical measure in Congress.
Faced with the first case of mad cow disease in this country, the White House and the USDA were scrambling to restore public confidence in the nation's meat supply, encourage foreign governments to resume beef imports and head off a possible political crisis for President Bush.
For years, the politically potent and well-financed cattle and meatpacking industries have held sway in the debate over the practice of slaughtering and marketing non-ambulatory, or downer, cattle. They repeatedly blocked efforts by urban Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans to end the practice -- which provides producers with millions of dollars of profits each year but also represents the biggest potential source of contaminated meat.
An estimated 190,000 sick or injured cattle are shipped to slaughterhouses annually, and only about 5 percent of them are tested for serious illness such as mad cow disease. Just last month, Republican congressional leaders deleted from a pending spending bill a measure banning the slaughter of downer cattle.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a longtime advocate of legislation to ban the slaughter of sick or injured cattle, said the industry has "shot themselves in the hoof" by resisting a necessary safeguard to the food system. With the industry now facing a crisis of consumer confidence and the temporary loss of European and Asian markets, he said, the Agriculture Department "has seen the light, but that's only because they've been struck by lightning."
The ban announced yesterday also gave a lift to animal rights activists and consumer groups who had been consigned to the fringes of the mad cow debate. "We've been pushing this for years," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "I do believe that this can restore consumer confidence in the government's regulatory authority as it stops one of the worst abuses that occurs in the modern livestock production system."
A downer or non-ambulatory cow is unable to stand. Some animals break legs or injure themselves either on farms or on the way to slaughter, but others may be sick or paralyzed. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- mad cow disease -- turns brain tissue spongy and causes animals to stagger and fall. There is no known cure.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2000 and 2002 asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to check feed companies' compliance with a Food and Drug Administration regulation prohibiting protein pellets made from the remains of cattle and other ruminants from being fed to cattle. Twice the GAO found serious lapses.
The GOP — no principles, no public health, no food safety, no rational policies — just politics everlasting, 24/7.
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