The industry has taken some severe hits on the animal welfare front recently because cattle that pass the initial veterinary inspection at a packing plant, then go down for non-health related issues, could still enter the food chain if they passed a subsequent inspection by USDA inspectors. That’s about to change. USDA this week announced it will propose a rule to prohibit this exception.

This is not a food safety issue, but a consumer perception issue, and the modification of the rules that would prohibit slaughter of all disabled non-ambulatory cattle has widespread industry support as a result.

Ag Secretary Ed Schafer pointed out that this is expected to impact less than 3 head in 1,000. Personally, I’m amazed that the number could be that high, and it points out that the complaints directed toward the industry on how we deal with our cull animals may be justified in some instances.

Concern over this new rule has largely been centered on the slippery slope it creates and the argument that this is not a food safety issue. While those are valid points, the industry must be responsive to consumer wishes and proactive in making sure that recently-occurring public relations disasters are not repeated.

Humane handling is, of course, in everyone’s best interest, and I think a much stronger argument can be made that the “slippery slope” the industry faces is not acting quickly and decisively enough on some of these issues. When it comes to food safety, the issue has never been about the majority, but rather that one-in-10,000 or one-in-a-million event that can cause irreparable harm. Certainly, we will have to continue to draw a line over radical proposals from activist groups like PETA or the Humane Society of the U.S. who are fundamentally opposed to animal agriculture in any form. But we can ill afford to provide bullets for their guns.