Today, in yet another pro-animal rulemaking action, the Obama Administration made final a rule banning the slaughter of downer calves – an issue The HSUS put on the national radar screen with a pair of damning undercover investigations that threw back the curtain on the mistreatment of juvenile animals too sick or injured or weakened to walk to their own slaughter. The rule closes a loophole in a 2009 federal regulation that banned killing downed cattle for human consumption but did not include downer calves, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and suffering. The 2009 and now the 2016 rules go a long way toward addressing the abuse of these animals, but more work remains, perhaps with the next administration, to address the widespread abuse of downer pigs.
The HSUS filed a legal petition after an undercover investigation at Bushway Packing, Inc., a veal calf slaughter plant in Vermont, found workers kicking, slapping, and shocking infant calves with electric prods. Another HSUS undercover investigation in 2014 at Catelli Bros., a veal calf slaughter facility in New Jersey, showed more abuse of downer calves. Workers were recorded trying to lift calves by their tails, dragging them with chains, and spraying them with water to force them to stand up so that they could be inspected and slaughtered.
We estimate that thousands of veal calves, most of them only a few days or weeks old, collapse on their way to slaughter every year. The very youngest calves, slaughtered to be sold as “bob veal,” are extremely vulnerable: they’re far more likely to collapse and become “downers” than mature cattle. A heartbreaking combination of mistreatment, genetic frailties, denial of sustenance, and the stress of being taken from their mothers mere hours after they’re born causes the calves to break down.
Animal scientist and meat industry consultant Dr. Temple Grandin has noted that “ninety percent of all downers are preventable” and that dairy producers create downers by denying calves their mothers’ colostrum and selling them at auction before they can walk. The USDA recognized in the proposed rule that the loophole allowing downer calves to be slaughtered “may have created an incentive for some establishments to inhumanely attempt to force these animals to rise.” The new rule will create a financial incentive for producers to treat all calves better to avoid creating downers, and take away any incentive to use cruel methods to force the calves through the slaughter process. Slaughterhouses will now be required to promptly and humanely euthanize all downer calves, just as they are already required to do for adult cattle. The agency also revised its regulations to make clear that humane handling requirements apply as soon as calves and other animals arrive at the slaughter establishment.
HSUS backers were instrumental in this outcome. They joined more than 150,000 Americans who wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to urge him to stop the slaughter of downer calves. Federal lawmakers also weighed in, with 92 representatives led by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and 14 senators led by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., sending letters to the USDA to urge final action on the rule. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., played a key role too, offering strong support. Dr. Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who tipped us off to the abuse of downer calves in slaughterhouses and gave powerful testimony to Congress about it, was a major force as well in bringing about this reform. We are grateful to the Obama Administration, which continues to take very meaningful steps forward to protect farm animals, horses, and wildlife and is cementing its record as the most pro-animal administration in our nation’s history.