USDA Moves to Ban Slaughter of Downer Veal Calves Too Sick or Injured to Walk

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted The Humane Society of the United States’ 2009 legal petition requesting that the agency halt the inhumane practice of slaughtering downer veal calves too sick, weak or tired to even stand up. The petition asked the USDA to close a loophole in federal regulations that allows downer calves to be kept alive indefinitely, leaves calves prone to cruel dragging, and incentivizes other abuses at slaughter facilities. Although the agency has announced its change in policy, it has not said when it will issue a proposed rule to implement the decision.

“We are pleased the USDA is finally moving to address the serious animal welfare and food safety concerns associated with the slaughter of downer calves,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president for animal protection litigation and investigations at The HSUS. “We urge the agency to move forward on this issue to protect young calves from inhumane handling and slaughter, and revise its regulations without further delay.”

The HSUS legal petition was filed in the wake of an undercover HSUS investigation that showed employees at a Vermont slaughterhouse kicking and shocking downer veal calves in their faces, necks and torsos in an effort to force these infant animals off trucks and into holding pens. This treatment regularly occurred in front of a Food Safety and Inspection Service inspector, who routinely failed to take any remedial action or halt the abuse. After the HSUS exposé, the plant was shut down and the owner and one of his employees subsequently pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty and were barred from participating in slaughterhouse activity involving live animals.

For years, the USDA has banned the slaughter of all adult downer cattle and required that mature cattle be promptly and humanely euthanized rather than dragged to slaughter. Downer calves, however, may be kept alive indefinitely in slaughter facility pens before they are eventually slaughtered. In explaining its decision to grant the HSUS petition, the USDA stated that the new policy will improve the agency’s inspection efficiency and that the agency “agrees that the provision that allows veal calves to be set aside to be warmed or rested may create an incentive for establishments to inhumanely force non-ambulatory veal calves to rise and for veal calf producers to send weakened calves to slaughter.”

The petition explains that keeping these sick, disabled calves alive and wallowing in pens is not only inhumane, it also increases food safety risks. Because nonambulatory animals spend more time lying down, they are often forced to lie in excrement, which can lead to contamination of meat with fecal matter during the slaughtering process. Calf fecal matter may contain a number of pathogens that are dangerous to humans including Giardia, Salmonella and potentially deadly strains of E. coli. For example, E. coli O157:H7 infects tens of thousands of Americans every year, causes dozens of deaths, and is the leading cause of acute kidney failure in previously healthy U.S. children.


  • When dairy cows give birth to male calves, the calves are sometimes sold to veal factory farms or are slaughtered for “bob veal” within about a week of being born.
  • About 700,000 veal calves are slaughtered in the United States annually, approximately 15 percent of whom are bob veal calves under the age of 3 weeks. 
  • Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Rhode Island have passed laws phasing out the extreme confinement of calves in veal crates but still allow transport and slaughter of calves at any age.
  • The agriculture industry trade publication Feedstuffs editorialized in September 2009 about a series of investigations conducted by animal organizations: “It’s important to understand that companies and producers can’t just say ‘bad apple’ and move on because — to consumers who have seen these videos again and again — there are no bad apples anymore. The bad apple, to consumers now, is the industry.” Feedstuffs also opined that, “It [the egregious mistreatment of animals] has to stop…There is no excuse because what’s really being violated, breaking down and failing is not policy but ethics and morality, and no number of after-the-fact investigations and statements will make up for that.”

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