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Dairy Farmers Contributed to House Panel

December 30, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The dairy industry, which opposed a ban on selling meat from ``downed animals,″ won nearly unanimous support in a close vote from key House members it contributed to this year.

Political action committees representing dairy farmers gave money to 33 of the 51 members of the House Agriculture Committee, an Associated Press review of campaign reports shows.

Of the 33, 28 voted against the ban on marketing downers _ cows too sick or injured to walk on their own _ while four voted for the ban and one didn’t vote. The House defeated the measure, 202-199, in July.

The Senate approved the ban on a voice vote in November, but it was left out of the final compromise spending bill passed by the House this month and awaiting action in the Senate.

The cow that tested positive for mad cow disease last week in Washington state was a downer, confirming warnings from supporters of the ban that such cows are more likely to have the brain-wasting disease.

Most ``downers″ are old dairy cows whose meat can bring farmers a little extra revenue. The Agriculture Department estimates that 130,000 are brought to slaughterhouses every year, and says that those showing signs of mad cow disease are tested.

To prevent disease, the government prohibits processing the brain and spinal cord of such animals _ the pathways for mad cow disease _ into meat.

In addition to public health concerns, animal rights advocates oppose the sale of downed animals because they say many are so injured or sick that they must be dragged by chains or forklifts to the slaughterhouse.

So far this year, the Dairy Farmers of America PAC has made contributions to 27 Agriculture Committee members, and the National Milk Producers Federation PAC contributed to 17. Some committee members received money from both groups as well as from smaller dairy PACs.

Neither of the large dairy PACs returned phone messages seeking comment.

The committee’s chairman and its ranking Democrat, who led the debate in the House against the downed-animal ban, received the most contributions.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., received $9,500 in dairy PAC donations, and Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, got $8,500.

During floor debate in July, Stenholm lectured New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, author of the proposed ban in the House, that he did ``not understand the cattle business,″ and argued that most downed animals are merely lame.

Ackerman now says that Agriculture Committee members thought they were protecting the cattle industry but wound up hurting it.

``The amount of money farmers would have lost euthanizing these poor, wretched animals, they lost the other day in five minutes,″ he said, referring to overseas bans of U.S. beef.

Goodlatte said his opposition to the bill had nothing to do with the dairy industry’s position.

Rather, he said, he was worried that the ban would prevent the discovery of an animal with mad cow disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

``The only place it’s discovered is when the animal is delivered by the farmer to a slaughter facility and presents indications that it might have some kind of an illness,″ Goodlatte said. ``That is exactly what happened in this case.″

Gene Bauston, president of the New York-based animal rights group Farm Sanctuary, argued that the time to test the animals is not at the slaughterhouse _ where they can enter the food supply before the tests come back _ but at the farm. Ackerman’s bill called for such animals to be treated by a veterinarian at the farm or be euthanized.

``It’s clear that the dairy industry has very much influenced the action of key members of Congress,″ Bauston said.

Fast food chains such as Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s don’t accept meat from downed animals, and the Agriculture Department prohibits it in the federal school lunch program.

Mad cow disease is caused by a misshapen protein that creates tiny holes in the brain, making it look like a sponge. People can get a related illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, if they eat meat containing such tissue of an infected cow.


On the Net: USDA: http://www.usda.gov/

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