What a Downer!
by Peggy Olive
I listened to a CBC Radio One news item late last night that had me fuming. The Canadian Government is planning an amendment to a long-standing regulation that dead animals cannot be accepted for slaughter, a change that could come into effect in a few months. It was my understanding that so-called “downers”, or animals that cannot support their own weight, are currently refused for slaughter. This rule helps to ensure the safety of our food supply, and as the Health of Animals Act indicates, the regulation is also meant to avoid undue suffering to animals during transport. Although not consistent across Canada, some slaughter houses refuse to accept non-ambulatory animals or they charge a fee to put these animals down.
The proposed change would mean that when an animal dies on a farm, a vet could simply sign a sheet (no blood testing required) and a dead animal would be considered fit for human consumption. Death would be “by accident, of course, not illness”, according to Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture. The details are not spelled out – how long it takes for the dead animal to be transported to the slaughter house, and whether the carcass must be refrigerated during transport. If the meat isn’t contaminated before the animal dies, it could become infected during transport. There will be a second inspection by a veterinarian at the slaughterhouse, but unless tests are performed, low level bacterial contamination could be missed.
I don’t know about you, but this is worse than scary – it makes no sense. Apparently the industry has been pushing for this change in order for ranchers to recover their costs. Have they considered the cost when consumers learn that the probability of a sick animal entering the food chain has increased? Will our trading partners still buy Canadian beef if it is more likely to be contaminated?
The Minister, when pushed on how many additional animals will be accepted under the new rule, refused to give a number and repeated “few”, which raises the question – why take the risk? According to the information available on the Health of Animals Act, in 2001, over 7000 non-ambulatory cattle (about 90% dairy) arrived at the 31 federally inspected slaughter houses, and 3.2 million cattle were slaughtered that year (0.2%). What is most interesting is that inspection led to carcass condemnation in only 37 percent of the non-ambulatory animals, which means that 4410 downers were accepted for slaughter and entered the food chain that year. So regardless of the proposed change in rule, even downers are currently accepted if they meet inspection criteria at the processing plant. The proposed change in regulation would mean that animals dead before transport could also be accepted.
Could this be the tip of an iceberg? A significant savings could be had if farmers were able to ship all of their animals “dead”. Think how many could be packed into a cattle car without need of food, water, or even air. Do it in winter, and you won’t even have to refrigerate. The animals would benefit by avoiding stressful transport, an ongoing and unresolved problem, but unfortunately we would face increased risks to our health from their consumption because it’s a lot more difficult to identify a sick animal if it’s dead. The Minister of Agriculture says he is anxious to hear your thoughts on this issue. Let’s give him some.