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[Op-Ed] Downer Cows

Posted February. 10, 2009 09:23,   


A worker trying to make a downer cow stand up was the most shocking image aired on the MBC investigative news program “PD Notebook.” That particular episode helped to throw Korea into chaos last year. Though the footage was part of a video made by a U.S. animal protection group to report animal abuse, the program used it to describe a mad cow, triggering candlelight vigil protests against U.S. beef imports. The producers of the MBC program said it was a simple mistake by the host, but the footage had a huge effect.

There are around 50 reasons cows fall down. When people cannot stand upright, they might be suffering from a fracture, arthritis or brain disease. So do cows. If a cow stretches its hind leg out before it, it may have a hip dislocation, and if it crouches, obturator nerve paralysis. The general cause of downer cows is lack of calcium. Since cows produce milk and give birth several times, they are prone to becoming downer cows due to lack of calcium. Among cows older than 12 months, 1.1 percent can be downer cows.

Forty-one downer cows have been consumed in Korea since June last year. The PD Notebook episode aired in April last year implied that the 41 downer cows were mad cows. Claiming that downer cows are BSE-infected cows is no different to diagnosing people who fall down due to a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) disease, which is a human version of mad cow disease. This does not mean that downers are safe to eat. They may have caught brucellosis, a disease that strikes both humans and animals. Falling down is a common symptom of BSE-infected cows. Under no circumstances should the meat of a cow that fell down without a clear reason go on a dinner table.

Unscrupulous merchants bought downer cows from beef farmers from all over the country at bargain prices, put the brucellosis test results of other cows on them, and slaughtered and sold them on the market. Food tampering is a problem but a weak management system is another. There are also loopholes in the system. Cows that fall down due to injury, hard labor, parturient paresis and acute bloating are allowed to be slaughtered at a farm under the presence of a veterinarian, not at a slaughterhouse. Given the commotion over the U.S. beef imports last year, Koreans are sure to be emotional.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)