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?