USDA Broadens Ban on Downed Cattle Slaughter to Include Calves

By: Gene Baur

The Obama Administration has published a rule to strengthen federal regulations and prohibit the cruel treatment and slaughter of downed calves,  broadening its existing ban on slaughtering downed cattle to include calves as well. This is important because calves, especially those from dairy farms who are taken from their mothers at birth, are frail and susceptible to illness and disease.

Frail calves, sometimes just hours old, are sent to livestock markets where they often succomb to illness and disease. Many of the newborn calves who are sent to stockyards are the offspring of dairy cows. The cows must be impregnated and give birth in order to produce milk. (Feel free to distribute freely for not-for-profit use, but please credit Farm Sanctuary. If you are media and are in need of a high-resolution version of this image, please contact us requesting the file “S7,14a_300_1”.)

Frail calves, sometimes just hours old, are sent to livestock markets where they often succumb to illness and disease.

Agribusiness had been allowed to truck sick and dying calves to slaughterhouses in order to profit from their slaughter, but this will now be prohibited. And, besides preventing the suffering of debilitated young calves during transport and at the slaughterhouse, this policy also provides an incentive for farmers to take better care of their animals in order to prevent them from becoming downers in the first place.

This is a positive development, which represents another incremental step towards lessening the suffering and abuse of downed animals (i.e. animals too sick even to stand).

After Farm Sanctuary’s rescue of Hilda, a downed sheep who was left on the “dead pile” behind Lancaster Stockyards in 1986, media exposés about downed animal abuses in the 80s and 90s led the USDA to start a surveillance program to monitor stockyards. The Agency even tried to prosecute stockyards for mistreating downed animals, but that effort ended when a court ruled that USDA had no legal authority to address animal welfare at stockyards. The law (i.e. the Packers and Stockyards Act) required stockyards to provide adequate care to maintain the economic “value” of the animals, but if an animal was discarded and considered to have no economic value, stockyards were legally allowed to leave them to suffer and die with impunity.
tumblr_leme0sf7761qb7khho1_500In the 1990s, we broadened our effort to address the abuse of downed animals at slaughterhouses, in addition to stockyards and auctions. The primary federal law addressing farm animal welfare in the U.S., ironically, is the Humane Slaughter Act. The USDA has a notoriously poor track record of enforcing this law, but it has adopted some positive positions regarding downed animals over the years, usually because of pressure.

In 2001, Farm Sanctuary brought a lawsuit to end the slaughter of downed animals for human food, citing animal welfare and human health concerns, including the threat of mad cow disease. The USDA denied the existence of mad cow disease in the U.S. until December, 2003, when mad cow disease was confirmed in a downed cow in Washington State. After that discovery, our lawsuit was settled in 2004 with the USDA agreeing that downed cattle would not be used for human food and banning the delivery of downed cattle to slaughterhouses. But the meat industry was able to insert a loophole during the regulatory process, which prohibited downed cattle from being accepted at the slaughterhouse, but strangely allowed cattle who walked into the slaughterhouse but then became downed afterwards to be used for human food. In 2008, an exposé showed a southern California slaughterhouse exploiting this loophole, and violating federal and state downed animal regulations and laws (California enacted a law to restrict the abuses of downed animals in 1994), which led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Once again, a light was shined on downed animal abuse, and the USDA was compelled to tighten its downed animal rules.

We are encouraged to see how much progress has been made, and look forward to seeing no downer policies extend to pigs and other animals as well. We and our colleagues in the animal rights community will keep the pressure on.

opie before and after

Once discarded as a downer, Opie survived and went on to live a long and happy life at Farm Sanctuary. (Photo at right by Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals)

North Carolina’s ag-gag law is an affront to human decency

By Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary President & Co-Founder


In 1986, while investigating Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania, I found a living sheep collapsed among the carcasses of the stockyard’s “dead pile.” She was a “downer,” an animal too sick or weak to stand, and she had been left there to die. She was the first animal rescued by Farm Sanctuary, then a fledgling advocacy organization. We named her Hilda, and we shared her story, illustrated by a photograph of her lying on that dead pile.

Hilda inspired us to intensify our investigations of Lancaster Stockyards, where we discovered that the mistreatment and neglect of downers was business as usual. We organized a protest, which garnered media attention and exposed the stockyard’s disregard for animal welfare. The public was outraged, and Lancaster Stockyards was compelled to announce that it would humanely euthanize downed animals instead of leaving them to suffer on its premises. By documenting and publicizing conditions at this facility, we were able to bring about necessary reforms.

Were I to advocate in the same way for an animal like Hilda today in North Carolina, I would be committing a criminal act.



Coalition to USDA: Step Up Enforcement for Farm Animals

Pigs in a slaughterhouse holding pen.

Pigs in a slaughterhouse holding pen.

By Bruce Friedrich, Director of Policy and Advocacy

Earlier this month, Farm Sanctuary joined forces with five other nonprofits — Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion Over Killing, Farm Forward, Mercy for Animals, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — in submitting a 38-page petition for rulemaking to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), calling on the Agency to stop almost entirely ignoring the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMSA).

We did this because the HMSA is grossly neglected by the agency charged with enforcing it, so that animals are being tortured in U.S. slaughterhouses, even though there are USDA inspectors on site who could stop it. This petition is focused on stopping illegal cruelty, and does not imply that there is any such thing as “humane slaughter” — we see those terms as inherently contradictory.

Our petition asks that:

  • USDA’s definition of “egregious” as applied to the HMSA be codified in regulation;
  • USDA ensure that all violations of HMSA result in at least a “Noncompliance Record” (NR) to document the violation;
  • USDA ensure that all egregious violations of HMSA result in at least a plant suspension;
  • USDA refer reckless and intentional cruelty for criminal prosecution;
  • USDA create a structure for closing down the worst slaughterhouses completely.

We are making these recommendations because:

  • Undercover investigations have documented almost unfathomable abuse at USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, abuse that was not caught or cited by USDA’s inspectors in the plants in question.
  • USDA’s own OIG and the Government Accountability Office have both consistently documented lax enforcement of the HMSA, and they have called for USDA to do better. But the agency has not improved.
  • FOIA records from USDA document workers running over crippled animals with construction equipment and electrocuting them in their genitals and anuses, animals running around the slaughter floor with massive head wounds, animals regaining consciousness mid-slaughter, and plants that continue to operate even after being cited many times for inhumane slaughter.

Although our requests involve only small changes to current FSIS policy, they will significantly improve compliance with the mandates of the HMSA if implemented.

You can read the full petition here.

Cow's eyes

A cow looks out from a transport vehicle.