op ed articles

The disgraceful secret down on the farm

Stephanie Brown and John Youngman
Ottawa Citizen
October 10, 2003

The most famous cow in Canadian history, the one that sparked the BSE crisis, was a downer, an industry term to describe farm animals so badly injured or diseased they cannot walk or even stand up. The cow went down on an Alberta farm before being loaded onto a truck and shipped to slaughter.

She touched off an economic firestorm that is still raging across the country, but she will also go down in history for drawing attention to something few of us knew: that downer animals - often severely injured and in terrible pain - are being dragged onto trucks and shipped to slaughter plants for human consumption.

Surveys conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Canada's food regulator, suggest the number of downers being transported is staggering. In 2001, 7,382 downer cattle – mostly dairy cows – arrived at 22 federal slaughter plants and auction markets across Canada, with the vast majority going down on the farm. A 2003 survey of pigs at 35 CFIA-inspected sites spanning two months revealed 4,684 downers.

These surveys represent only the tip of the iceberg, since they covered only a handful of sites.

The transport of downer animals with serious injuries or diseases is not supposed to happen. The federal Health of Animals regulations prohibit loading or transporting an animal who cannot be moved without "undue suffering." Canada's voluntary transportation guidelines for industry recommend only animals in good physical condition and optimum health be transported.

However, documents obtained under access to information laws by the Animal Alliance of Canada reveal animals with serious injuries and diseases are being transported in flagrant violation of the law and industry guidelines. The documents obtained were certificates that, under Ontario law, must be completed by a veterinarian before a downed animal may be transported. They are heart-wrenching.

A recent article in the Canadian Veterinary Journal written by veterinary officials with the CFIA states unequivocally: "It is simply impossible to move mature non-ambulatory livestock humanely, no matter how close to the slaughter plant. Early treatment, on-farm slaughter, or euthanasia should be the course of action to deal with these animals."

More and more, the food industry is beginning to understand the cruelty - and bad optics - associated with transporting downers. McDonald's Canada does not buy meat from downed animals, and Manitoba does not allow the transport of downers under any circumstances.

There are other reasons for ending the transport of downers. In Ontario, most of the 1,038 animals dragged to slaughter between April and June, 2002 were not seen by a veterinarian at the slaughter plant nor subjected to post-mortem examinations, even though downed animals pose a risk of transmitting diseases such BSE into the human food chain.

A CFIA survey suggests it is false economy to sell downers for human consumption since nearly four out of 10 dairy cows, and six out of 10 downer pigs, ended up being condemned.

Prevention is a big part of solving the downer problem, given most downers go down on the farm. The dairy industry in particular needs to explain why so many dairy cows can't walk. On-farm practices clearly need to change.

Other solutions include a total ban on the transport of animals that cannot stand up; a ban on slaughter plants accepting these animals; better enforcement by provincial and federal food regulators; and mobile slaughter units to facilitate on-farm slaughter.

In the end, it all comes down to human decency. In a civilized country like Canada, a debate over whether to transport a wailing cow with a broken back should not be necessary.

John Youngman serves on the board of directors of The Winnipeg Humane Society. Stephanie Brown is farm animal advisor to the Toronto-based Animal Alliance of Canada. Both are founding members of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.