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'Downer' Cows Banned As Food

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Tuesday announced a list of new restrictions to further enhance the safety of the American beef supply, including a meatpacking ban on the use of sick "downer" cattle like the one discovered last week with mad cow disease.

A "downer" cow is one that is so sick or injured it can't walk. The cow found to have had mad cow disease in Washington state has been described that way.

She also announced bans against the use of small intestines and head and spinal tissue from older cattle in the U.S. food chain, as well as changes in slaughterhouse techniques with the aim of preventing accidental contamination of meat with cow nerve tissue. Mad cow disease is spread through such brain and spinal cord tissue.

"Sound science continues to be our guide," Veneman said.

Under the new regulations, the sick cow slaughtered in Washington state on Dec. 9 would not have been allowed to enter the U.S. food chain.

The meat from that cow was allowed to be sold for human consumption after its brain and spinal column were removed and a federal inspector saw no indication of neurological disease. From now on no downed cow can be used for meat. The Agriculture Department estimates that 130,000 down cattle are sent to meatpacking plants each year.

USDA ordered a recall of more than 10,000 pounds of meat from 20 cows slaughtered on the same day at the same Washington state company. The recalled meat was distributed to eight states and Guam, although officials said 80 percent of it went to Oregon and Washington.

USDA officials have said they ordered the recall as a precaution, insisting there was no threat to the safety of the U.S. food supply. "The risk of BSE spreading in the U.S. is extremely low and any possible spread would have been reversed by the controls we have already put in place," she said.

Veneman said the announced changes have been planned for a while. But they come just as U.S. agriculture officials in Tokyo are trying to persuade the Japanese to lift that country's ban on American beef. The U.S. officials went to South Korea after their stop in Japan.

"These actions are not being taken in response just to our trading partners," Veneman said. "We should take these actions that are appropriate and consistent with actions that many other countries have taken."

The agriculture secretary called the regulatory changes "very aggressive actions." She said they should not impose any hardship on the cattle and meatpacking industries, nor consumers.

"I don't expect an increase in the price to consumers," she said. "The number of cattle that enter the food supply currently as downer animals is very small."

Gene Bauston, president of the New York-based animal rights group Farm Sanctuary, which has been suing the government for years to try to stop the use of downed animals for food, said the changes were huge.

"This is a good thing for animals and a good thing for people," said Bauston. "These animals are made to suffer horribly, humans are put at risk, and there has never been an excuse for this practice."