WASHINGTON — The government plans to close a loophole in meat inspection rules that led to the record recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef this year, Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer said Tuesday.
The Department of Agriculture will prohibit meat plants from slaughtering any cow that can't stand and walk on its own at any point after it arrives at a plant, Schafer said.
The rule would eliminate existing provisions that allow plants to send "downer," or sick, cows to slaughter if they fall ill after passing an initial inspection and then pass a second inspection.
"I believe it is sound policy to simplify this matter by initiating a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle that go down after an initial inspection," Schafer said in a statement. The new rule should be in effect by the end of the year.
Schafer characterized the change as minor, saying that fewer than 1,000 of the 34 million cows slaughtered last year were approved after becoming sick and passing a second inspection. He also told reporters that an investigation found slaughterhouses were asking for those second inspections when warranted.
Still, the move was praised by members of Congress, industry associations and interest groups, which have been pushing for change since the February recall. The recall was prompted by an undercover Humane Society video showing abuse of sick cows at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who pressed Schafer to close the loophole in a letter this week, said the secretary's decision would improve the safety of the food supply.
"The current regulation allowing downer cattle into the human food supply is confusing to consumers and our trading partners, expensive to administer and unnecessarily risky from a public health standpoint," Durbin said in a statement.
Westland/Hallmark provided much of the ground beef used by federal school lunch programs. Its meat was recalled because plant workers failed to get a second inspection of cows that had fallen down just before slaughter.
That raised fears that companies were sending sick cattle to slaughter despite efforts to prevent their meat from entering the food supply as a precaution against mad cow disease.