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Originally published Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Industry groups back cattle ban

In a reversal, major meat and dairy industry groups on Tuesday backed a total ban on so-called downer cattle from entering the food supply...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In a reversal, major meat and dairy industry groups on Tuesday backed a total ban on so-called downer cattle from entering the food supply.

Calls for such a ban have come from watchdog groups and some lawmakers in the wake of the massive beef recall from a Southern California slaughterhouse in February, but the industry had resisted.

Current law bans slaughter of most cows that are unable to stand, but they're allowed in if they fall down after passing a veterinarian's inspection and are reinspected.

Advocacy groups called that a loophole, but the Agriculture Department and the meat industry opposed changing it.

Under pressure from Congress and outside groups, the industry reconsidered.

The American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association and the National Milk Producers Federation said Tuesday they asked the Agriculture Department to enact a total ban.

"We think that the time has come," said Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the National Meat Association, based in Oakland, Calif. The group represents some 400 packers and processors. "We want to send a clear message to consumers that we're putting their welfare and concerns ahead of the economics."

A spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service did not respond to messages seeking comment. Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said after the recall that he thought the existing rule protected food safety and that it was not fair to cattle owners to ban the slaughter of cows that may be safe to eat and just have a broken leg or hip.

Schafer wasn't able to estimate how many additional cattle might be affected by a total ban, and the overall economic impact is difficult to calculate, though Mark Dopp, of the American Meat Institute, said it wasn't expected to be significant. Dairy farmers get several hundred dollars for each cow they sell for slaughter.

Undercover video taken at Westland/Hallmark Meat in Chino, Calif., showed workers shocking cattle and pushing them with forklifts to force them to slaughter. That led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, though authorities said the health risks were minimal.

Downer cows are more prone to infections such as mad-cow disease, partly because they typically wallow in feces.

The Humane Society of the United States has sued to enforce a complete ban on downers, and some in Congress have supported legislation to accomplish the same thing.

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Humane Society President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne Pacelle called the action by the industry groups "very significant." He said it affirmed the Humane Society's argument that it did not make economic sense for meat processors to be slaughtering downers. "It's late, but we're pleased that they've done so," Pacelle said.

The American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association said they would encourage companies to enact a voluntary moratorium until the Agriculture Department changes the rule.

Some industry watchdogs were skeptical.

"It's taken our trading partners to force them into doing the right thing," said Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group. He noted that South Korea agreed last week to resume U.S. beef imports only after pressuring the United States to strengthen controls on feed to reduce chances of infection. A proposed Food and Drug Administration rule to accomplish those changes had been pending for months.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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