Warning: video contains graphic material
Who’s to Blame for Unsafe Beef?
Beef recalls, like white-collar crimes, are not shocking because of what is uncovered, but rather, what is not. The Enron scandal may have received major media attention and stunned consumers, but the most surprising aspect of the whole ordeal (besides our energy bills) was that the executives involved were actually caught—most white-collar criminals aren’t. Likewise, it’d be comforting to think that the largest beef recall in United States history—which happened this February and revealed that downer cows were being put into the food chain—resulted from an anomalous situation … but chances are it wasn’t.
If this were a one-time occurrence, it seems likely it would’ve been caught by a swiftly responsive and rigorously conducted federal inspection. Instead, a Humane Society undercover videotape blew the whistle on the California slaughterhouse whose workers used forklifts, stunners, and high-powered water sprays to get sickly cows to the kill floor. Was this an anomalous finding, as heads of the meat industry contend? Probably not. The Human Society allegedly chose to film the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse at random. Was it just chance that they found the one slaughterhouse—out of the approximately 6,200 federally-inspected slaughterhouses—that was violating the law? The probability of that is about 0.00013—very small indeed.
Who’s In Charge?
Federal law prohibits the slaughter of downer cows (animals too weak or sick to stand on their own) because of the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—or mad cow disease. The disease is extremely rare, but it was detected in the United States in 2004. This discovery prompted legislation requiring that sick cows undergo veterinarian examination before heading off to the slaughterhouse.
The responsibility for enforcing this legislation falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—specifically, the Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), whose 7,800 personnel ensure the safe processing of livestock and monitor the humane slaughter of animals. FSIS personnel inspect cows before slaughter: downer cows must be checked by a vet and extremely sick cows must be slaughtered separately and not processed for human consumption. Not every sick cow has BSE, so some are put back into the food processing chain, as long as a vet approves this. However, this process did not happen at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company, where the undercover video was shot.
The cows in question went down after inspection, and although the processing establishment is supposed to get a vet to recheck them, they didn’t. Not only were the animals clearly abused by the workers—the scene of a cow dragged by its front leg attached to a chain and a forklift defies any sense of humanity—but they were clearly not well. As a result, 137 million pounds of meat were pulled—including meat for the National School Lunch program—because of the risk, caught on film, of BSE in our hamburgers.
Who’s Really in Charge?
No one fell ill from the recalled meat, but the incident made what had already been a very bad year for beef even worse. In 2007, there were twenty-one recalls of beef potentially contaminated with e-coli. On April 9, 2008, a federal audit of eighteen slaughterhouses found violations in four.
Although it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that the American meat supply remains safe, the meat industry must bear a large portion of the responsibility for the current crisis. In 1998, a new meat inspection process, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), gave control of microbial testing to meat plant operators, effectively limiting the involvement of USDA inspectors. Similarly, the job of checking cows prior to slaughter is under the auspice of USDA inspectors, but often depends upon meat plant workers to alert the USDA to problems. According to the USDA Web site, “The FSIS veterinarians and other inspection personnel are not stationed in the ante mortem area for the entire day. They do return randomly to verify humane handling, as well as the stunning and bleeding process.”
This “random” oversight begs the question of just how strictly laws are enforced or followed—and who’s really in charge. It behooves slaughterhouses to sell safe meat to the public—massive recalls can have lasting effects on consumers’ buying habits and (when traced back to the source) can force companies to face fines, financial hardship, or even closure. But with a limited number of inspectors on site and cows as the only witnesses, incentives for processing sick cows or fudging a bit on the microbial tests remain large. Meat plants only face repercussions when they’re caught, putting them in a situation not unlike that of investors who have figured out how easy it is to embezzle funds with impunity—the risks seem small enough that many are willing to gamble.
Just as the Enron scandal prompted the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, lawmakers are backpedaling to try to make beef production safer, including closing the loophole that lets downer cows be used for production. While the risk of sickness resulting from BSE is miniscule compared to that of bacterial contamination (which leads to millions of cases of food-caused illness each year), inhumane treatment of downer cows and their potential for transmitting disease remain causes for concern.
Agricultural Secretary Ed Shafer rejected a complete ban on downer cows entering the food supply, but U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation that would impose greater penalties for breaking the law; others are calling for twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras in processing plants. Other Representatives are seeking even greater changes. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration regulates produce and other food products, while the USDA regulates animal products. New proposed legislation would fuse the two agencies, streamlining the regulatory process.
Meanwhile, the USDA has taken action after the recent crisis. When the undercover video was released, the agency revoked its “supplier of the year award,” given in 2004–2005 to the Westland/Hallmark meat plant. They even asked for their plaque to be returned. Now that was one fast recall.
Cartoon by Mike Keefe, Denver Post