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So, Who Sent Those Sick Cows To The Slaughterhouse?

Federal regulators and fast-food companies reacted with unprecedented speed this week to the release of an undercover video that animal rights activists shot inside a California slaughterhouse. The video, which we'll warn you, is pretty graphic, shows employees of Central Valley Meat Company using electric prods repeatedly on cattle that appeared unable to get to their feet. That's a violation of rules that are supposed to keep sick animals out of the nation's meat supply.

The USDA shut down the facility and started an investigation. Major customers, including McDonald's, stopped buying the company's products.

For all the outrage aimed at the slaughterhouse,what about the dairy that sent cows to slaughter, even though they appear to be barely able to stand? The episode shines a harsh light on one corner of the beef industry: The part that slaughters cows that have spent most of their lives producing milk.

Slaughtered dairy cows account for about six percent of all beef production in the U.S., and about 18 percent of ground beef, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. But unlike cattle that are specifically raised for beef, they often do not arrive at slaughterhouses in top physical condition. They are older, they have given birth to several calves, and they have been bred and raised to convert feed into milk, not meat.

When a milk-producing cow runs into health problems — anything from udder infections to sores on her feet that make it difficult to walk — a dairy farmer may be tempted to just ship her off to slaughter. And the problem ends up in the hands of slaughterhouses that specifically handle "culled" dairy cows, like Central Valley Meat.

The result: Stomach-churning videos like the one released this week. Even when those videos don't show evidence of a health risk to consumers, they can be devastating to individual businesses and even the entire beef industry.

Many people in the industry now are trying to convince dairy farmers never to send another ill, lame, or otherwise incapacitated animal off to slaughter.

Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.

He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.

As for cows that have really serious health problems, "if she's too sick to go to the feed pen, then she's too sick to go to slaughter," Wallace says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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