It shouldn't take the largest meat recall in history and a lawsuit by an animal protection group to make the U.S. Department of Agriculture do its job. Apparently that is the only way it will happen.
The Humane Society of the United States, not the USDA, exposed unlawful practices at a California slaughterhouse. Lame and potentially sick dairy cows were subjected to extremely cruel treatment and slaughtered for meat that ended up in school lunches. The Humane Society conducted an undercover investigation, then warned schools in dozens of states of the risk (including some in the Tampa Bay area).
All of that was the USDA's responsibility, yet it still took the agency another week to shut down the slaughterhouse and more than two weeks to recall a record 143-million pounds of beef. By then most of the meat had been eaten. This is enough to give anyone heartburn about the government's indifference to food safety.
It all happened because the USDA quietly weakened a regulation established in 2004, after the first domestic case of mad cow disease, that was supposed to keep nonambulatory animals out of the human food supply. But there's money to be made on so-called downer cattle. So the meat industry lobbied for, and got, a loophole that allowed downer cattle to be slaughtered if the USDA first determined each animal wasn't diseased.
At the California plant, workers just waited for the federal inspector to leave for the day, then moved downer cows to slaughter by any means necessary. The Humane Society recorded workers ramming disabled cows with a forklift, giving helpless animals an electrical shock, jabbing them in the eye or forcing water down their noses.
Even when the USDA inspector approved cows for slaughter at the plant, it was after only a brief once-over of about 30 animals at a time. Such insufficient scrutiny is unlikely to detect diseased animals.
In its lawsuit, the Humane Society says the loophole violates two federal laws — requiring humane slaughter and inspections to protect people from tainted meat. To avoid another massive meat recall, "we should not hesitate to close this legal loophole and establish an unambiguous no-downer policy," said Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle.
Congress should not have to wait for the courts to pass a permanent exclusion of downer cattle from the food supply. Lawmakers should require a humane end for nonambulatory animals and make the USDA enforce the law even if it means upsetting the meat industry.