The Humane Society sued the federal government over what it said is a legal loophole that allows sick or crippled cattle into the food supply.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change made in July allows some unhealthy cows into the food supply, the Humane Society of the United States alleges in its lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
In 2004, the USDA tightened regulations to prohibit the slaughter of all "downer" cows _ animals that cannot stand _ after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state. The lawsuit alleges that under last year's change, cows that fell down after an initial veterinarian inspection but appeared otherwise healthy were allowed to be slaughtered.
The lawsuit asks the USDA to close the loophole to protect consumers and ensure the humane treatment of animals.
The lawsuit, citing USDA documents, says that even cows whose inability to walk stems from broken limbs are about 50 times more likely to have mad cow disease. The illness weakens their muscles, making them prone to falls.
Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not immediately comment.
The American Meat Institute, an industry group, said in a statement that the Humane Society's concerns were "alarmist and unfounded."
The USDA ordered the largest beef recall in history Feb. 17 after the Humane Society released undercover video showing workers at Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. shoving sick or crippled cows with forklifts to get them to stand.
The video also showed workers dragging sick cows with chains, shocking them with electric prods and shooting streams of water in their noses and faces.
The lawsuit says the workers were trying to get the animals to stand, even briefly, so they could be considered acceptable for human consumption.
"Because of the regulatory loophole, the meat industry has an economic incentive to use whatever means are necessary to force downed cattle to stand and walk, even if only for this brief period of time," the lawsuit claims.
The USDA recalled 143 million pounds (64.86 million kilograms) of beef from Westland/Hallmark this month, saying the agency had evidence the slaughterhouse violated health regulations.
No illnesses have been linked to the recalled meat, and authorities have said the health threat is small.
The Westland/Hallmark plant has since shut down and two workers face criminal charges in the case.