The Humane Society of the United States is calling for the end of the processing of diseased and dying animals for human food. The group claims that these conditions could mask intentional inoculation of livestock with diseases or toxins.

“The threat of bioterrorism adds one more reason to end the use of non-ambulatory animals in human food,” says Frank Garry, DVM, who also is the coordinator for the Integrated Livestock Management Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. “An animal that is unable to walk because of illness should probably not be processed for human food consumption, regardless of whether the animal was intentionally or unintentionally contaminated. As long as the USDA continues to slaughter diseased livestock, it is possible that a bioterrorist attack could make people very sick and undermine confidence in American agriculture.”

The HSUS claims in a news release that USDA inspectors can't possibly ensure the absolute safety of the meat supply. It further states that inspectors routinely test for only a handful of diseases if an animal is exhibiting symptoms of illness. Those diseases include bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease and other diseases that are highly contagious or would have a significant negative economic impact.

The HSUS points out that the USDA must stop processing diseased and injured animals for human food if they are to implement a thorough plan to protect consumers.

“As long as our slaughterhouses continue to process thousands of animals afflicted with such devastating illnesses and injuries that they are unable to walk, trying to identify an animal who has been purposefully poisoned or inoculated with a disease that is harmful to consumers is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Wayne Pacelle, HSUS senior vice president.

USDA estimates that 130,000 non-ambulatory animals are processed nationwide each year, which is a tiny fraction of the total number of livestock.

Both House and Senate farm bills include provisions to require the euthanasia of non-ambulatory animals when they are brought to market, but HSUS reports that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) filed an amendment in December they claim that would weaken the provision and he may continue his efforts when the farm bill returns to the floor of the senate.