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A Safer, Kinder, Hamburger this Labor Day

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is no longer down with downer cows.

In the wake of the failing consumer confidence over the safety of America's beef, the USDA proposed a new rule this week that would amend the cattle inspection process.

Earlier this year, the agency conducted investigations, largely prompted by Humane Society allegations that "downer cows" were not properly inspected at the California Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company, and were allowed to enter the U.S. food system. Downer cows are animals that are injured and/or sick and unable to walk.

Plant operations were ordered suspended when federal officials reviewed videotapes that showed (now former) Hallmark employees shoving sick and crippled animals with a forklift, along with other abuses.

This prompted the USDA's largest beef recall — more than 143 million pounds of frozen meat — much of it to school lunch programs.

Concern over a case of mad-cow disease discovered in Washington state originally prompted USDA officials to tighten regulations in 2004 concerning downer cows, but the "second inspection" policy allowed animals to enter the food system. Food Safety and Inspection Service reports that 34 million cattle were slaughtered in 2007 and less than 1,000 cattle re-inspected were approved for slaughter.

FSIS inspectors (all licensed veterinarians) could re-examine cows tagged as "US Suspects," that had become injured or sick —but had passed the first inspection — on a case-by-case basis to determine if they should be allowed to proceed to slaughter. (USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich said "the regulations state that an FSIS inspector must be present at all times during all shifts at slaughterhouses, and that there are at least two inspections per shift.")

The new ruling would require that any animal that becomes disabled following initial ante-slaughter inspection to be condemned, tagged as "US Condemned." Officials say this prevents the possibility of disabled or ill animals entering the U.S. or export food systems.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer says this proposal eliminates any animal unsuitable for food consumption and offers a humane method for disposing of condemned cows.

"I believe it is sound policy to simplify this matter by initiating a complete ban on the slaughter of downer cattle."

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