Meet Your Meat: How Much Is 143 Million Pounds of Cow?

From New York Times (by Andrew Martin):

The Department of Agriculture on Sunday ordered the largest recall of beef ever by far, calling for the return of 143 million pounds of ground beef from a California slaughterhouse that supplies school lunch programs.

The acknowledgment came after the Humane Society of the United States distributed an undercover video on Jan. 30 that showed workers kicking sick cows and using forklifts and electric shocks to force them to walk.

The video raised questions about the safety of the meat because cows that cannot walk, called downer cows, pose an added risk of mad cow disease. The federal government has banned downer cows from the food supply.

Agriculture officials said there was little health risk from the recalled meat because the animals had already passed pre-slaughter inspection. In addition, the officials noted that while mad cow disease was extremely rare, the brains and spinal cords from the animals — the area most likely to harbor the disease — would not have entered the human food chain.

The recall comes after a challenging year for the Department of Agriculture’s meat inspectors. After several years in which the cases of E. coli O157:H7 declined markedly, the number of recalls in 2007 spiked.

There were at least 21 recalls of beef related to the potentially deadly strain of E. coli last year, compared with eight in 2006 and five in 2005. No one is quite sure what caused the increase, though theories include the cyclical nature of pathogens and changes in cattle-feeding practices caused by the ethanol boom.

The recall on Sunday was more than four times bigger than the previous record setter, the 1999 recall of 35 million pounds of ground beef by Thorn Apple Valley, federal officials said. It comes on the heels of a widening scandal involving animal abuse at the California slaughterhouse, operated by the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, Calif.

The recall came after a Department of Agriculture investigation found that the company did not always alert federal veterinarians when its cows became unable to walk after passing inspection, as required.

“Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, F.S.I.S. has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall,” Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement. F.S.I.S. is the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects meat for safety.

The company is voluntarily recalling all its raw and frozen beef products since Feb. 1, 2006, even though authorities admit that most of it has probably been eaten. Of the 143 million pounds that were recalled, 37 million went to make hamburgers, chili and tacos for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs, officials said.

“The great majority has probably been consumed,” said Dr. Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food safety

Cows that cannot walk cannot be used for food because they pose an added risk of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal disease that eats away at the brain. There have been three confirmed cases of infected cattle in this country since 2003.

The announcement Sunday was classified as a Class II recall, indicating that the chances of health hazards were remote. Other large recalls involving E. coli O157:H7 have been Class I recalls, indicating that eating the product may cause serious health problems or even death.

Officials at Westland/Hallmark meat could not be located for comment on Sunday.

Some critics pointed out that the recall exposed gaps in the nation’s system for food safety.

“The recall is obviously the big news,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society. “The longer-term problem is the inadequacies of the inspection system. How can so many downers have been mistreated day after day within a U.S.D.A. oversight system that was present at the plant?

“We need more boots on the ground at the plants,” he said.

The undercover video, shown on television and on YouTube and other video Web sites, has caused an uproar since its release on Jan. 30.

The Department of Agriculture started an investigation and suspended the company as a supplier to federal nutrition programs. Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland, said afterward that he was “shocked and horrified” by the videos and voluntarily suspended operations pending the outcome of the federal inquiry.

On Friday, the San Bernardino district attorney, Michael A. Ramos, filed animal cruelty charges against two employees who were fired by the meat company. Daniel Agarte Navarro was charged with five felonies and three misdemeanor counts while Luis Sanchez was charged with three misdemeanors.

While acknowledging that most of the meat has been eaten, agriculture officials said the recall was necessary to find all the meat that had not been consumed and because the plant was not following the rules.

“The reason for doing this is because the plant was not in compliance with F.S.I.S. regulations, and therefore it is an unfit product,” said Dr. Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator for the agriculture department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Department of Agriculture inspectors conduct pre-slaughter inspections on all cattle on the day of slaughter. If an animal becomes unable to walk, before or at the time it is presented for slaughter, employees of the slaughterhouse are required to summon a Department of Agriculture veterinarian.

The veterinarian then has the discretion to determine if the animal is fit for slaughter. The Department of Agriculture contends that employees at Hallmark/Westland were sometimes not notifying the veterinarian when animals could not walk after being inspected.

Agriculture officials said in a statement that they believed the case was “an isolated incident of egregious violations to humane handling requirements and the prohibition of non-ambulatory disabled cattle from entering the food supply.”

The Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and eggs, has 7,800 inspectors who provide inspection at more than 6,200 plants. In 2007, the agency suspended 66 plants; 12 of those suspensions were related to egregious humane handling violations.

4 thoughts on “Meet Your Meat: How Much Is 143 Million Pounds of Cow?

  1. Oh God. I really need to go vegetarian or at the very least stop falling off the grass fed organic beef we are nice to our cows bandwagon. Or raise my own meat or something. Not for my sake, for the cows’.

  2. it’s nice to “recall” meat from 2006 and be surprised that it was already eaten – in my house it’s called “let’s clean out the fridge and throw everything that has a color that needs -ish on the end to describe it” – i’m sure this recall is “voluntary” because there was nothing to actually recall – i’d like to see an actual recall that would result in major $$$ loss for meat-making industry… cows are cool, i agree!

  3. When I read about this, I am struck by two competing realities. First, that the plant was slaughtering and processing these cows with such cruelty and inhumane treatment. Yes, it’s wrong of them, and I hope they get what’s coming to them in the biggest way possible. There is no excuse for “kicking them when they’re down,” whether a person or a cow.

    But come on. No cow being raised for consumption has a great life. And yet, it’s a food chain sort of thing; it’s the madness of the society we’ve created that we want to distance ourselves from the reality of what we consume, and yet we consume voraciously, and waste outrageously.

    But not only was there no evidence of contamination in this beef, the USDA further believes that much of the meat has already been eaten, without incident. So why, then, must the rest now be recalled and destroyed? To do so means that the lives of the 250,000 or so cattle that made up that 143m lbs of beef were completely, utterly, lived in vain. They lived, then they were killed, chopped, ground up, and now they will be burned to ash.

    To me, it seems the height of hubris for the USDA to engage in this recall. “This action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations,” said Ed Shafer, secretary of the department of Agriculture. If ever there was a time for thinking outside the box, this was it. It’s like, “Well, the book says if this happens I have to do that. So I’m doing that.”

    I’m appalled by the whole thing, from the incidents at Westland/Hallmark, to the response by the USDA. As a society, we should be better than this. But we clearly are not.

  4. I don’t think it’s hubris, Keith, I think it is a way to show the public that in the business of merciless killing of animals, USDA will not tolerate a too obviously cruel killing – the article notes that USDA was motivated to act after some facts were revealed about the treatment of “downer cow” – I think it simply protected its ass. Yes, we don’t have any cases of extreme diseases, but who knows how many lovers of McDonalds and Wendy’s had a stomach problem or two, blaming it, of course, not of ‘USDA choice’ beef of fast food but on that not-so-fresh Chinese take-out…

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