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A Wake-up Call: USDA Slaughterhouse Closing

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Over the past two weeks, news outlets across the country have reported on the USDA's closure of a cattle slaughter facility in central California for "egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock." The agency was alerted to misconduct at Hanford's Central Valley Meat Co. by animal protection organization Compassion Over Killing, whose undercover investigator gathered footage of workers shooting cows in the head repeatedly with a captive-bolt gun after the first shot failed to stun them, of a conscious cow flailing as she hangs from her back leg on the chain that will carry her to the throat-slashing station, and of sick or injured cows struggling as workers roughly try to force them to stand.

The cruelty uncovered at Central Valley Meat sickens me, but it doesn't surprise me. The company and the industry will allege that the recklessness and brutality brought to light there are an aberration, but after more than 25 years investigating the abuse of downed animals and advocating on their behalf, I can tell you that such conduct is all too common.

Central Valley Meat Co. is one of many operations that specialize in slaughtering dairy cows whom producers deem "spent." To keep cows in constant milk production, dairies subject them to an unremitting cycle of impregnation, birth, and lactation. Producing more than twice as much milk they did 40 years ago, cows are impregnated every year and are milked during seven months of their nine-month pregnancies. They are pushed to their biological limits. After a few years of this, they are exhausted -- their bodies depleted, their bones brittle, their udders often painfully infected with mastitis. When they are no longer profitable as milking cows, these poor animals are sent to slaughter.

It was at a stockyard that a Farm Sanctuary rescue team found Fanny. This "spent" cow had clearly endured not only the ordeal of milk production but also the misery of neglect. Her horribly overgrown hooves made every step excruciating, and her legs buckled under the weight of her enormous udders. Instead of trying to help her, stockyard workers hit her with wooden poles to make her move, striking her every time she fell, attempting to force her to get up.

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Fanny and Orlando

As soon as we could gain access to Fanny, we brought her to Cornell's veterinary hospital, where we assumed she would need to be euthanized. Despite her ailments, however, with the care she received, Fanny began to revive. Within hours, her eyes were brighter, and by the next day she was standing on her own and greeted us with a loud moo. Against the odds, Fanny still had plenty of life in her.

And even after years of seeing every calf she bore taken away within hours of delivery, Fanny also still had a strong desire to be a mother. At our New York shelter, she met Orlando, Arnold, Tweed, Conrad, and Milbank, young male dairy calves sold at auction for cheap beef when they were newborns and later rescued after their buyer shot six others purchased with them. The mother who had never known her calves and the calves who had never known their mothers claimed each other at once and became a blissful family.

The devotion Fanny and her adopted sons have for each other underscores the tragedy of dairy production. These animals suffer not only physically but emotionally. The lives denied them are not ones of mere survival but ones of intimacy, loyalty, and joy.

The slaughter of animals too sick, injured, or weak to stand and walk on their own ("downers" as the industry calls them) at Central Valley Meats, a supplier for the USDA's national school lunch program, has justly raised concerns about the safety of the U.S. meat supply, not least because the violations occurred under the noses of two USDA inspectors stationed at the plant. Under federal regulations instituted in 2009, in part at the urging of Farm Sanctuary, the slaughter of downed cattle for human consumption is prohibited. Without strict oversight, however, businesses will continue to push downed cattle onto the kill floor, squeezing profit out of every animal they can. They will also continue to slaughter downed pigs, sheep, and goats with impunity, since these animals are as yet exempt from the regulations that are supposed to apply to downed cows.

Every year, more than one million animals become so sick or injured that they are unable to walk to slaughter. We are still fighting against great resistance to keep even these extremely unwell animals from being killed for food. If our government demanded that all animals slaughtered for human consumption actually be healthy, by any sane definition of the word, and if that regulation was actually enforced, the slaughter industry would be brought to its knees.

The USDA has decided against a recall of Central Valley Meats beef. I hope this does not put the matter to rest for consumers. This investigation has given people across the country a glimpse into an industry that breeds, raises, transports, and slaughters animals with systematic disregard for their welfare and for the welfare of those who consume animal products. I hope this story will make people think about the history of the meat on their plates, and I hope it will inspire them to replace that meat with food that has not been created with such callousness.

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