Video: Obama: Current system is 'unacceptable'

updated 3/14/2009 2:15:50 PM ET 2009-03-14T18:15:50

The Obama administration on Saturday permanently banned the slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, seeking to further minimize the chance that mad cow disease could enter the food supply.

The Agriculture Department proposed the ban last year after the biggest beef recall in U.S. history. The recall involved a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse and "downer" cows. The Obama administration finalized the ban on Saturday.

"As part of our commitment to public health, our Agriculture Department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don't find their way into the food supply," President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio and video address.

Those kind of cows pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease. Because they wallow in feces, they also are susceptible to infections from bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli.

The recall also raised concerns about the treatment of cattle and came after an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States videotaped workers abusing downer cows to force them to slaughter.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the ban was "a step forward for both food safety and the standards for humane treatment of animals."

'Reckless practice'
The Humane Society's president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, said he was pleased that the government "is putting a stop to the inhumane and reckless practice of dragging and otherwise abusing downer cows in order to slaughter them for human consumption."

A partial ban on downer cows was already in place; it resulted from the nation's first case of mad cow disease, in 2003.

But there was a loophole. If a cow collapsed after passing inspection, government inspectors allowed the animal into the food supply if it had an acute injury, such as a broken leg, but showed no signs of central nervous disorder that might indicate the presence of mad cow disease.

Slideshow: Get a taste of food safety Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In people, eating meat contaminated with BSE is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease. A massive outbreak of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom that peaked in 1993 was blamed for the deaths of 180,000 cattle and more than 150 people.

There have been three confirmed cases of BSE in the United states, in a Canadian-born cow in 2003 in Washington state, in 2005 in Texas and in 2006 in Alabama. The Bush administration in 2006 dramatically scaled back testing for mad cow disease.

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No illnesses have been linked to those cows in the United States. There have been three cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease confirmed in people living in the U.S., but those were linked to meat products in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health 'hazard'
In his weekly address, Obama called the country's food inspection system "a hazard to public health," citing outbreaks of deadly food poisoning in peanuts this year, peppers and possibly tomatoes last year and spinach in 2006.

Obama also announced the nomination of former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg as Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and his choice of Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as her deputy.

The president said he was creating a Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety laws throughout government and advise him on how to update them. Many of these laws, essential to safeguarding the public from disease, haven't been touched since they were written in the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, he said.

He also blamed recent underfunding and understaffing at FDA that has left the agency unable to conduct annual inspections of more than a fraction of the 150,000 food-processing plants and warehouses in the country.

Hamburg, 53, is a well-known bioterrorism expert. She was an assistant health secretary under President Bill Clinton and helped lay the groundwork for the government's bioterrorism and flu pandemic preparations.

As New York City's top health official in the early 1990s, she created a program that cut high rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

She is the daughter of two doctors. Her mother was the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Yale University, and she credits her Jewish father for instilling in her a passion for public health.

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