USDA issued the ban in December after a Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow and became the nation's first recorded case of the brain-wasting disease. Its Food Safety and Inspection Service maintains that the cow was a downer — one too sick to stand or walk on its own — although some witnesses have challenged that.
The department just finished a public comment period on whether to keep, scrap or make revisions to the ban. The food safety service's acting administrator, Barbara Masters, will make that decision, although there is no time frame, said agency spokesman Steven Cohen.
People who eat meat contaminated by mad cow disease — known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE — can get a fatal variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Supporters of the ban cite health concerns and compassion as reasons to keep it in place. Cattle groups, meanwhile, argue that the ban should apply to diseased animals, but not to injured ones that pose no health risk to humans.
"If these (injured) animals are condemned, rather than slaughtered, then producers will suffer an unnecessary economic loss," the National Milk Producers Federation said. "Condemning animals suffering from a physical injury such as a broken leg does not seem to be supported by science with respect to BSE risk."
The milk producers acknowledge that downer cows have a higher risk for mad cow disease. But they argue that human health would not jeopardized if the government allows injured cattle to be slaughtered for food, provided they are tested for disease first. Most downer cows are dairy cattle.
Wisconsin, which is second in the nation in dairy production, also wants meat from injured cattle back in the food supply. The state's director of meat safety and inspection, Terry Burkardt, said condemning animals with broken bones is "a waste of wholesome food and an economic burden" on small farmers and meat establishments.
Burkardt estimated that the government's current ban will preclude 3,000 "otherwise healthy, freshly injured cattle" from Wisconsin's food supply, or about 2.4 million pounds of meat.
North Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona and West Virginia filed similar comments.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, based in Centennial, Colo., asked USDA to allow for the personal — as opposed to commercial — consumption of downer cattle injured during transport.
Jeffrey Farris, who owns a "mobile slaughter" operation in Ellsworth, Wis., that travels around to farms, said his business has suffered in the wake of the ban.
"I don't have a problem with the ban on 'sick' downers, but what about the 'healthy' animal that slips and falls, and either breaks a leg or 'splits out?'" Farris wrote the department. "Those animals don't have anything to do with BSE, so why the ban on slaughtering them?"
The Humane Society of the United States contends that any weakening of the ban would both pose a health risk and subject cows to suffering.
"It would be impossible for them to determine whether a physical injury is derivative of a neurological disorder or other illness," the group wrote. "It is well established that illness and injury are often interrelated."
Many Humane Society members weighed in on their own. A typical letter urged USDA to not only keep the ban in place, but expand it to other animals such as pigs, sheep and goats.
"All downed animals that are marketed and brought to slaughter are subjected to horrendous cruelties; often they are dragged to slaughter by their tails and ears, or dumped and left to die in agony," wrote Shari Lewis Thompson of New York City. "Each and every one of them suffers unimaginable pain and fear."
The AP review covered written comments currently on file at USDA, but the department has not yet filed all it has received.
By Frederic J. Frommer