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Risky Cattle Use Needs Tough Penalty - US Lawmakers

Date: 14-Mar-08
Country: US
Author: Christopher Doering

The legislation would impose fines for first-time offenders who slaughter livestock too ill or injured to walk, known in the trade as "downer" cattle. A second violation would bring a one-year suspension in operations. Third-time offenders would be shut down permanently.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and supported by Sens. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, Daniel Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, and Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.

They acted in the wake of the largest beef recall in US history by a California packer accused of violating rules on downer cattle.

"Companies responsible for this kind of activity shouldn't just receive a slap on the wrist," said Feinstein. "The safety of our food supply cannot be taken lightly."

Separately, Feinstein wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer asking why USDA has not increased punishment for facilities that slaughter downed livestock despite being given the authority in the 2002 farm bill.

Currently, USDA suspends inspection of the plant following a violation until the facility either corrects the violation or submits a corrective action plan, she said. Violations can include improper humane treatment, handling, and disposition of non-ambulatory livestock.

Senators also proposed in the bill requiring USDA to release the names of stores that receive products later recalled. USDA says it will begin listing retailers later this year but lawmakers and consumer groups are pushing USDA to do it sooner.

The call for tougher fines and penalties for plants comes nearly a month after Hallmark/Westland Meat Co recalled 143 million pounds of meat, mostly beef, dating back to February 2006.

A videotape released on Jan. 30 by The Humane Society of the United States showed Hallmark/Westland workers using abusive techniques to force sick and injured cattle into the slaughterhouse so they could be processed into food.

"We need a bright-line ban on all downers in the food supply and stronger civil penalties for companies that ignore legally required humane-handling responsibilities," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

The meat was recalled because the plant butchered downer cattle in violation of federal rules. Beef from downer cattle is usually not allowed in the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against "mad cow" and other diseases.

In the case of Hallmark/Westland, the cattle could not stand at the time of slaughter, although they passed inspection earlier. Packers are required to alert USDA veterinarians in those cases so they can decide if the animal can be slaughtered for food.

(Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by David Gregorio)

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