‘Downer’ cattle not a problem for one livestock hauling company

| 2/29/2008

OOIDA member Steve Hilker said he doesn’t have a problem with “downer” cattle on any of his company’s trucks. That’s because he refuses to load them.

Hilker admits, however, that it hasn’t always been easy to say no.

He said that in the past his company, Steve Hilker Trucking Co. based in Cimarron, KS, used to have some problems with shippers wanting to load non-ambulatory or “downer” cattle on his trucks. However, in recent years, he said, attitudes have changed in the cattle industry because everyone in the supply chain fears that “downer” cattle may have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease.

“It used to be really hard to refuse one because what the feed yards wanted to do was get the downer on the truck because then it became my problem,” Hilker told Land Line. “Now, especially with mad cow disease, everybody’s gotten a lot more cautious, which has given truckers some leverage being in the middle of the supply chain from the shipper to the receiver.”

Hilker’s company has been specializing in interstate livestock hauling for more than 30 years. He said all of his drivers have a voice and can refuse to load cattle they don’t think are healthy enough to make the trip.

He said all of his drivers are paid on a commission-only basis and receive a percentage of the gross on the load, which is an incentive for his drivers to make sure the livestock put on their trucks will be accepted on the receivers’ end.

“So, whenever a downer gets taken out of the truck gross, that affects them, too. So it behooves my drivers to not take something that’s not going to make the trip, because they’re buying into it, too,” Hilker said.

Largest beef recall ever tied to ‘downer’ cattle
The issue of “downer” cattle was brought to the forefront again recently when the USDA issued the largest beef recall of more than 143 million pounds – the largest ever in U.S. history.

The USDA announced the recall after The Humane Society of the United States released undercover footage of workers abusing “downer” cattle at a slaughterhouse in California in an attempt to get them to stand so they could be processed into the food supply chain. The USDA halted the production at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA, after evidence was brought to light that proved that at least one “downer” cow was processed for human consumption.

The video showed two slaughterhouse workers dragging downed cattle with heavy metal chains attached to a forklift; kicking animals in the face, shocking the animals with an electric prod and blasting downed cattle with a high pressure water hose. Criminal charges have been brought against two of the workers at the Hallmark/Westland plant.

What’s for lunch?
Of the more than 143 million pounds of recalled beef, approximately 50.3 million pounds of the meat went to the National School Lunch Program. Of that amount, as least 19.6 million pounds has already been consumed by schoolchildren across the country.

Hallmark/Westland recently announced the company will most likely go out of business after receiving the news that the USDA was proceeding with a warranty action against the company to try and recover some of the costs associated with the massive beef recall.

Humane Society sues USDA over ‘downer’ cattle loophole
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, The Humane Society filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have the agency close a loophole which permits “some crippled cows to be slaughtered for human consumption.” The regulatory loophole allows USDA inspectors to determine the disposition of cattle that became non-ambulatory after they passed ante-mortem (live) inspection on a case-by-case basis.

“Downed cattle may also be at higher risk for harboring other food borne transmissible pathogens, including E. coli 0157:H7, salmonella and anthrax. By allowing downed cattle to enter the food supply, USDA’s regulatory loophole injures members of the HSUS by placing them at an increased risk of contracting these food-borne illnesses each time they eat beef,” according to The Humane Society’s lawsuit.

Although Hilker said his company primarily hauls younger, feeder cattle, his company does haul older cows, on occasion.

In watching the news accounts of what happened at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, Hilker said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Where were the inspectors? We just don’t see that out here in beef country,” he said. “Around here, a ‘downer’ cow in the feed yard is one that’s got a leg issue – that’s had something happen to them, like stepping on a rock or in a crack, something like that.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer