Here's yet another disturbing story about meat, right on the heels of last week's post on a related topic. According to the Los Angeles Times, several members of Congress last week called for an independent investigation into the safety of beef supplied to public schools, responding to concerns raised by a horrifying video showing sick cows being tortured enroute to the slaughterhouse. The video, filmed at one of the nation's largest meat suppliers, shows weak and sick cows unable to stand and being subjected to torture in order to force them to walk. Regulations require that cows walk from one pen to the next to prove that they are healthy enough to slaughter. According to ABC News, Hallmark/Westland Meat Company, where the footage was shot, "is the No. 2 supplier of beef to a USDA program that distributes the beef to needy families, the elderly, and also to schools, through the National School Lunch Program."
The video was obtained by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as part of a six-week undercover investigation into slaughterhouse practices. HSUS spokesmen said that some of the cows in the video were actually dairy cows too sick or old to produce milk, so they allegedly were "recycled" to be slaughtered for beef. In spite of the rules, the videotaped debacle occurred under the noses of eight onsite USDA inspectors., although the USDA officially bans both the torture of domestic animals and the use of "downer cows" (cows unable to stand) for meat because the weakened animals are up to 50 times more susceptible to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease). Given the long incubation period of Mad Cow, those who ate beef from the downer cows may still be at risk.
Ironically, the Halllmark-Westland Meat Company was named "Supplier of the Year" in 2004. The company distributed meat to more than 100,000 child-care facilities and schools in the US, but the investigation has provoked schools in 50 states to pull beef from their menus.
Predictably, finger-pointing in response to the congressional action has reached a fevered pitch. Westland president Steve Mendell blamed his staff. "Operations have been immediately suspended until we can meet with all of our employees, and be assured these sorts of activities never again happen at our facility," he said, after firing several workers.
Meanwhile, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Ed Shafer, blamed the Humane Society. "It is unfortunate that the Humane Society of the United States did not present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007," he said after suspending operations at the Westland plant. "Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time." This statement was issued in spite of the aforementioned eight onsite inspectors.
The Humane Society insists that it did, in fact, submit extensive evidence of the abusive and unsafe practices at the conclusion of the investigation, but that local authorities refused to release the information, asking for extra time. The Los Angeles Times believes their version of the story. "U.S. Department of Agriculture has 7,800 pairs of eyes scrutinizing 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation," it reports. "But in the end, it took an undercover operation by an animal rights group to reveal that beef from ill and abused cattle had entered the human food supply."
The USDA has now undertaken an investigation, but critics don't believe they can do a fair and unbiased job; thus the congressional call for an independent investigation. "USDA policies" are allowing slaughtering and processing plants to use the National School Lunch Program as a dumping ground for bad meat," says Representative Rosa DeLauro, who threatened to hold a hearing on the matter. And California Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said, "I'm not sure it can be dealt with, with just the department investigating itself." He further noted that the department has a poor record of getting out news of important food safety issues.
For now, carnivores who view the video might consider buying a copy of The Vegetarian Epicure. Although the Hallmark/Westland plant has been shut down by the USDA, similar practices undoubtedly occur at competitive plants. And for those who are able to cast aside the images of the tortured cows bellowing in agony, the thought of these broken, diseased, almost quadraplegic animals making their way onto your dinner plate has got to give you pause. When you think about it, it makes true Kobe beef, raised on beer and sake and daily massages, seem like quite the bargain at $100 a steak.
P.S. In a better-late-than-never move, the USDA just recalled 143 million pounds of frozen beef from a Hallmark/Westland warehouse in Chino, California. According to USDA spokesman Ed Schafer, the agency has evidence that Westland allowed downer cows to go to slaughter when the cows became infirm after they already had passed inspection. Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union comments, "…it's somewhat disturbing, given that obviously much of this food has already been eaten. It's really closing the barn door after the cows left."
Let's hope that the barn door really is closed.