Downer and out: Will this be the cow-tipping point for the U.S. beef industry?

The Humane Society has managed to get graphic footage of workers at a California slaughterhouse using forklifts, high-pressure water sprays, wooden sticks, and electric shocks to get sick cattle up on their feet so they can pass USDA inspection and be processed into America’s food supply. Filmed by an undercover worker, the footage is absolutely horrifying for anyone who cares a smidgeon about animal welfare. But it’s also really, really bad news from a food-safety perspective.

As Rick Weiss explains in today’s Washington Post, there is a reason so-called "downer cows" are not allowed into the food supply. They could very well have mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is transmissible to humans. They are also covered in manure from being dragged and rolled, the E. coli from which has an unfortunate tendency of getting into the meat when these animals are then slaughtered.

So who’s been eating this beef? The company in the video — Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, CA — sells meat to Westland Meat Co., which is a major supplier of school lunch programs around the U.S. Westland has sold about 100 million pounds of frozen beef since 2002 to the USDA’s commodities program. Expect a real media shitstorm over this one.

But not to worry — the United States hasn’t had any major outbreaks of mad-cow disease. Of course, that could be because we haven’t looked very hard. There are 97 million cattle in this country. In 2004, a busy year for the USDA, the agency tested 759,000 cattle and found three to be infected. That’s a sample rate of less than 1 percent. I don’t find that reassuring, and it’s just one of the reasons I don’t eat U.S. commodity beef.

Apparently Westland and the USDA were caught entirely unawares by the Humane Society video. Weiss quotes Westland President Steve Mendell, who is also Hallmark’s operations manager, as saying the allegations were "impossible."

The USDA has just released a statement by Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer in response:

The USDA has indefinitely suspended Westland Meat Company as a supplier to Federal food and nutrition programs. Westland Meat Company will not be permitted to produce or deliver any products currently under contract. Under the suspension, no further contracts will be awarded to Westland Meat Company. The suspension will remain in effect until all investigations are complete and appropriate action is taken by the Department. An administrative hold has been placed on all Westland Meat Products that are in, or destined for Federal food and nutrition programs.

In his statement, Schafer rather grumpily reproaches the Humane Society for not contacting the agency directly as soon as it learned of the violations. "Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time," he says.

The USDA had ample opportunities to discover what was going on. An inspector visited the Westland plant twice a day at the same exact time — always a great way to keep tabs on something. Do health inspectors tell restaurants when they’re coming through?

The meat industry in this country is broken from start to finish. We take ruminants and feed them grain their stomachs weren’t designed to eat, treating them like garbage disposals for our industrial leftovers; implant steroids so they’ll grow faster; feed them antibiotics so they can survive the poor diets and crowded feedlot conditions; then ship them to slaughterhouses where they are killed and processed at speeds that practically beg for bacterial contamination and worker injuries.

What will it take to get Americans to stop eating beef that’s been marinated in E. coli and suffering? At what point will we say enough is enough?

74 Responsesto “Downer and out: Will this be the cow-tipping point for the U.S. beef industry?”

  1. says:

    It’s not only the employees – it’s the owners & managers who condone and ignore this treatment. It’s the onsight veternarians, the FDA – and a host of others who promote this nightmare simply by accepting the totally hypocritical, contraditory myth of “humane slaughter” for “food”….. We’ve been duped – all of it is wrong. All of the cruelty – unecessary…..

    I had NO hand in this cruelty – I do NOT salivate over juicy burgers, I do NOT shop the MEat grocery isle & vote with my dollars that ANY of this is acceptable.
    For health & heart….. GO VEGAN

  2. Jenna says:

    While I realize I’m going to more then likely get creamed for this -

    For god’s sake will people stop chanting Go Vegan like it will answer every problem. Good for you. You’re Vegan. However. Even if everyone stops eating meat today… there is still the small issue of BILLIONS of animals in our country. Any ideas on how to deal with animals wandering cities? How does a town dispose of the first 300 that die after being hit by a car…. how to manage the resulting disease caused by thousands of chickens being ripped apart by dogs and rotting in the streets? Pigs let loose go back to wild FAST. Ever seen an adult shredded by a wild boar? I have. Isn’t pretty.

    We have people in this country who are starving and sick today. If we can’t figure out how to fix that, I rather doubt people are gonna rise up and pick Bessy over Bob next door. Fine you had no part in it, but you ARE a part of the world at large and jamming your fingers in your ears and yelling that you don’t have to deal with it solves NOTHING. Frankly, it just annoys the people who ARE actively doing something and struggling to find a balance.

    Bully for you. Want a sticker showing you’re better then us meat eaters? Fine. But I’m going to take responsibility for what I eat, I’ll constantly check and recheck where I get my food and how it gets to my famiily’s plate. I’ll skip the mass marketed slaughterhouse ills and make sure to vote with my dollars over what I believe is right.

    How about we all agree to instead GO STUDY, then to GO THINK, and perhaps follow it up with GO ACT and GO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

    If not? Just GO AWAY.

  3. Amanda Rose says:

    I am actually a pretty unapologetic omnivore at this point. Veganism didn’t work for me. The nutrient deficiencies that played a role in my depression are fixed most readily by eating animal, so I do. I did “meet my meat”:

    I meet my egg producers daily. I can hear them cackling right now.

    I don’t shop in the meat section either but I do salivate over burgers.


  4. says:

    Response to Jenna:
    Concerning the small issue of BILLIONS of animals – firstly, let’s stop breeding them. Which should never have been done initially (but I’ll obstain from pointing fingers). Before this extreme animal population explosion towns used to dispose of dead animals by burying them – Now, they are sent to “rendering” plants and being fed back to livestock/pets….. What’s to be done now & here-after….. bury them/cremate them(?). These thousands of chickens…. or can we more accurately say 20 billion pounds of chickens? These chickens are bred aproximately 46 days before “harvested”. And too, if sows were not continually bred by the thousands per day – this veganism transition would work simply by allowing a “weaning period” — Hence, no dogs ripping apart foul or “man eating pigs” wondering our streets. So, maybe not “stop eating MEat today – how about next month? next year? MEatless Monday at least?

    You are concerned with people starving and sick in this country? Let’s go global…. It takes 6 times more land & resources to raise MEat than grain – Processing MEat uses a huge amount of fossil fuels & every increasingly more scarce water. I believe growing grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables would require a fraction of the resources needed to grow animals eating these very things….. Oh yeah – let’s not forget the deforestation, manure pits & greenhouse gas from livestock industries. Suggested reading: Rethinking the MEat Guzzler by Mark Bittman. New York Times

    I’m not putting my fingers in my ears – Instead, I believe most people upset by the recent exposed conundrum in their food chain are the ones who would preferably not know. And you think you know where your food is coming from – and you trust your sources? I thought so too – I voted with my dollars to buy “humanely raised” eggs…. upon researching I learned the hens were given 12 square inches of standing space instead of 8! Hence – the “Go Vegan”.

    Unless you live rural, either on or close to one of the few, disappearing 2% independent farming communities – there is NO WAY you can “know” where your food is coming from – or if it’s an animal, under what conditions it was raised….. Truth is we are urban…. and detached. Consequently we’ve left the fate of billions of animals in the hands of giant corporations whose biggest motivation is profit – unfortunately, most people’s sustainance has also been surrendered to this industrialized, process.

    ….. hummmm ~a nice human sticker~ Great idea!!!!

  5. Provoked says:

    To AmandaRose…. well – for sure, I haven’t been “depressed” thus far – but seeing that carion…. I mean carcass…. or uh – dead cow – okay you see food – I see dead cow, whatever…. Sorry you didn’t get the proper nutrients – it’s really not that difficult: fresh leafy greens, nuts, legumes, moderate excersize – 15 minutes of sun a day – actually, very simple.

    On the health note: I suffered extreme menopausal symptoms, fatique and severe joint pain…. The more I hurt the more I drank my milk & ate my “does a body good” dairy. Within a month of eliminating cheese & milk products – my hot flashes disappeared, my energy level & stamina increased ten fold – I shed 15 stubborn ‘baby fat’ pounds and my bones stopped hurting! Seems that calcium is not absorbed as efficiently when ingested as a protien – In fact, the more dairy I consumed the less my body utilized. See:

    Who knew right?

  6. m bunce says:

    To Bea Elliot
    Ditto. Thanks for that post. Although I am not a vegan and I posted solely for the abuse of the dairy cows that started this original post I have become more conscious of where my food, especially for my children, comes from. We have nixed red meat and pork and now have been able to find a chicken farm that I feel comfortable purchasing from because I like chicken. Yes, the amount of pollution from factory farms and your other stats are right on and cannot be ignored as it is the BIG picture and goes hand in hoof with the abuse. Don’t forget the toxic lagoons of pig waste from the pig factory farms in NC that are destroying all the natural habitat around these places and others. Jenna was a little harsh but I can understand where she is coming from in some ways but it isn’t necessary to tell Vegans to just “go away.” They are making a difference even if she thinks it small. Some people just don’t want to know about this stuff and it’s easy to turn your head. Luckily this time the news plastered it all over the place and the recall prompted questions. Everyone contributes in their own way and for some if after waking up and realizing that this inhumane situation of the abused dairy cows is reality and packaged meat has an origin perhaps the life of one animal can be spared or have a more humane end. Everyone has to do their part meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike.

  7. Amanda Rose says:

    Provoked — It actually is kind of difficult to get vitamin B-12 and the fatty acid EPA out of a leafy green or legume. We can convert some ALA in foods like nuts to EPA but the conversion is inefficient at best in those of us who do convert it. I agree with you that sunlight is probably fine for vitamin D.

    I think it’s great that you were able to figure out that dairy doesn’t work for you. Being a vegan doesn’t work for me.


  8. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi everybody: I continue to be amazed how many comments this post got and think the discussion going on here is terrific. However, if we are to turn this massive battleship of a f***ed-up food system around, our little dinghy needs to make room for vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, conscious carnivores, basically anyone who doesn’t want to participate in animal misery, human rights violations, environmental degradation, and the rest of the factory-food system’s delightful “external costs.”

    What works for one person, eating wise, might not work for someone else. If only there were an Esperanto for ethics. But I think we can all agree that the system that produced Downergate does not work for anyone except Big Meat and its bottom line. So I say choose veganism, choose to support small local family farms and eat meat less often, choose even organic meat from the supermarket — just don’t give your money anymore to the Westland/Hallmarks/Tyson/Cargill/Smithfields of the world.

    Think about what you eat, and whether you want your hard-earned money to support the values it represents. If 20% of Americans decided to apply their values (any values!) to their food other than searching out “value bargains” — we’d be on our way to turning that battleship.

  9. Provoked says:

    Everyone is very civilized here – this is a good thing. I totally agree that being more aware of where food comes from is the chore at hand. Not supporting the fast-food, mega processed, big money interests is a definate start – Eating less meat too as I understand we’re now eating 3 times what our parents did – this is suppose to be the “wealth” of our age(?)…. Anyway – another factor not mentioned is that a large part of the workers in these factory farms and slaughterhouses are illegal immigrants – Weather or not you believe they should be here – they are. And also being treated miserably in these plants. Just another way Westland/Hallmark/Tyson/Cargil/Smithfield makes their ill gotten gains.

  10. m bunce says:

    Not to mention that many of the illegal immigrants working in these factories are also unskilled and come from places wherein animals are animals and treated as such.

  11. Provoked says:

    And speaking of:Westland/Hallmark/Tyson/Cargil/Smithfield

    We can see again, who is buttering whose bread.

  12. Emily H. says:

    “Seems that calcium is not absorbed as efficiently when ingested as a protien – In fact, the more dairy I consumed the less my body utilized.:”

    Actually, in order to be absorbed properly, calcium must be accompanied by vitamin K2, an essential fat-soluble vitamin that ensures that calcium is absorbed into the bones and teeth, where it belongs, rather than calcifying in the arteries instead. Vitamin K2, however, is obtained primarily from leafy greens. Humans can manufacture it in modest amounts from Vitamin K, present in leafy greens, but it is much easier for our bodies to utilize this nutrient if we obtain it directly from the fat of ruminant animals, which process an abundance of Vitamin K2 from the grass they eat. Feedlot animals, obviously, have very little K2 in their fat, comparatively, because most never touch a blade of grass. Given this, there is some thought (read Nina Planck or info from the Weston A. Price Foundation) that fat from pastured animals is essential to optimal calcium absorption, and that feedlot meats and dairy, as well as ultra-low fat dairy, are nutritionally worthless.

    Also, Bea: Mark Bittman’s article in the Times was excellent, but his points on the welfare of animals raised for meat and the detrimental effects raising them wreak on the environment was directed toward feedlot animals, not pasture-based sustainable systems. I also disagree that unless you live in a rural area or raise your own meat that you cannot know where your food comes from. I, and I might guess many of the readers of this blog, routinely visit farmers’ markets whose vendors’ farms are located 1 to 3 hours from the markets they frequent and do, in fact, know the conditions in which our meat has been raised. I’ve seen the chickens who lay my eggs being all chicken-y (they’re really not that smart, truth be told), the pigs who supply my bacon and sausage living in glorious pigness, and the goats who supply the milk for my cheese and meat being all goat-y (including trying to eat my favorite jeans). I’m not sure where, exactly, you live, but chances are, you have an opportunity to buy from someone who is not part of a giant corporation, as you say. Please don’t equate the meat-eating of the masses with the attempts of those who choose to eat meat responsibly and sustainably.

  13. Provoked says:

    Emily….. yes, your right about the k & calcium – which is why I recommended plenty of green leafy veggies…. uh – the 1 to 3 hour drive you mention – that’s 2 – 6 hours to and fro – a bit time consuming…. not to mention the use/cost of fuel – which is another issue entirely.

    Grazing animals also contribute a large portion of methane -for every one animal grazing equals 2 additional humans to the 6.5 billion population. Their water needs are the same as (if not more than) feedlot/factory farm cattle.

    I envy you the eggs…. I live in Central Florida and have been in/out of phonebooks, co-ops, healthfood stores, etc. The closest I’ve come is a farm 2.5 hours away…. which equals 5 hours time/fuel – then the cost of $5/doz eggs – truthfully, I’ve done without so long – thankfully, it’s not an issue anymore….. No – I did not think they were that smart either – but, maybe smarter than my cat (who I love dearly) but is as dumb as a cardboard…..

    One final question: your bacon & sausage that live in glorious pigness – would that be the average 18 – 20 year life expectancy or the 8 month to culling expectancy? just wondering….. but then again, who am I to say how long a being should have to live?

  14. Emily H. says:

    I should clarify: I didn’t mean to imply that I drive to these farms to purchase my eggs, dairy, etc., every week; rather I have visited some of them in order to see for my own eyes the animals’ living conditions. I’m buying from the vendors at my farmers’ market (which I walk to each week), who drive the round-trip once each week to serve all of the market-goers. So the time/cost/fuel consumption issue you raise is moot, especially compared to the expenditures devoted to equal produce I might buy at the Whole Foods around the corner.
    Also, I didn’t mean to imply at all that the lives of the chickens I get my eggs from are less worthy because of their level of intelligence; it was simply a lame stab at humor in the middle of a decidedly sober post. (However, I’ve hung out with chickens for days at a time, and I stand firm that they’re really not all that bright.)

  15. Jenna says:

    I was going to comment on how well reasoned Emily’s posting was, as well as to clarify my own comment – restating that my view wasn’t an attack on vegans, nor a flame at telling someone to go away – but instead an attempt to make my point using the same rhetoric style they employed.

    However, since any attempt to state a differing viewpoint get slammed down with a general view of “meat eating = evil” I’ll simply write this. If someone is bound and determined to be offended and adament that other’s peoples moral values are in now way as good as their own, there is no point in banging your head against a wall.

    At the bare minimum, at least this posting has brought about some debate amongst us all and given us all a lot to sift through as we choose where we stand. What can I say, if I don’t eat meat – due to a genetic bent – I’ll die. And yes. I will put my life before an animals.

  16. Provoked says:

    Emily….. I know you weren’t trying to call chickens less worthy – I’m not radically opposed to snitching a few eggs from momma hen (if that were the case that I could) – goodness knows, if a small farm didn’t they’d be over-run with bitties….. Oh, just an aside as to their intelligence – my husband was raised on a farm – If they wanted a hen to hatch the remaining eggs they’d “trick” her by replacing the missing ones with porcelain door knobs. They never knew the difference…. or at least didn’t care.

  17. Provoked says:

    Jenna….. I wasn’t born “this way” – most of my life was dis-connected from what I consumed. I just assumed what society, my parents – the world was eating was what I was supposed to be eating. You’re right – everyone does have to chose their own course…..

    But, in re-thinking my choices I’m stuck with a leather living room set that every time I look at it I see nothing but pain and suffering….. At the time of purchase I wasn’t thinking about where or how it came to be – Out of sight – out of mind…. I know now that ignorance can be bliss.

  18. Provoked says:

    OOOps – one comment I forgot to respond to: “And yes. I will put my life before an animals.” Of course that’s the “your dog or your child” argument. I too would put my life above an animals – any animals…. my own precious kitty if need be – heck, if we were starving – I’m sure we’d tooth & nail it with each other – (in a friendly sort of way I’m sure)…. The point is – we aren’t starving and there are so many other cruelty free choices to consider….

  19. Amanda Rose says:

    Provoked — I meant to ask earlier — When you said that I see food and you see “dead cow,” did you look at the picture? Is that why you used the words “dead cow”? Or was it a coincidence. If you don’t know what I am referring to, look at my link above “I met my meat.” I am just overly curious, not really worried about what anyone else is eating. I am entirely vegetarian at the moment but I’d have to trace this particular drink to know for sure.


  20. Provoked says:

    Hi Amanda – did you mean to say “trace this particular link not drink”?

    yes, I said dead cow because that’s where this address you posted took me to – a recently slaughtered dead cow:

    Now I’m confused – in post #53 “am actually a pretty unapologetic omnivore at this point” and in the last ” am entirely vegetarian at the moment”.

    I’m clueless…..

  21. Amanda Rose says:

    Hi Provoked. I was just being silly. I am an omnivore but just a vegetarian some evenings with “this particular drink.” I know you won’t find that as funny as I and, frankly, I find it less amusing this morning than last night.

    That “dead cow” is in my freezer and is a dead steer. But did you see the license plate? The point is that I know it’s a dead cow (steer) and that doesn’t bother me. Apparently the butcher knows it’s a dead cow too since he advertises it on his plate.


  22. Provoked says:

    Yes – now I see the plate “dead cow” ….. clever.

  23. Turning to vegetarianism isn’t the only way to oppose CAFOs. After watching that video air on the news last winter,  I chose to only buy beef from a local family-owned farm that produces free range, grass fed meat.

  24. d- says:

    Take away my ground chuck burger and I’ll bite of your finger. Try and take away my thick juicy porterhouse and I’ll bite off your hand, maybe your whole arm! You can take away my broccoli though… my wife makes me eat it anyway. I think vegetable proteins cause flatulence. That would make a great VEGAN Tee Shirt “GO VEGAN caution: contents under pressure”. The next thing the vegans will be telling us is we shouldn’t take our dogs or horses hunting! If you don’t want to eat meat it is entirely up to you, but there is a long, long line waiting to move up the economic ladder just enough to take your places. Did you know there is a direct positive correlation between a nations meat consumption and it’s political stability. I think that is interesting.