If you haven’t heard yet, USDA has ordered the largest meat recall in U.S. history – 143 million pounds of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. USDA officials believe that the meat distributed by the company poses little or no hazard to consumers, which is fortunate, because much of it has been eaten already. It’s being recalled because the company failed to follow procedures necessary to prevent sick cows from entering the food supply.
Violations at the Hallmark meat packing facility came to light a few weeks ago, when an undercover Humane Society investigator released video he’d secretly filmed while working at the slaughterhouse. Steve Chawkins and Victoria Kim interviewed him for the LA Times:
From his first day, he started getting glimpses of alleged illegal actions that he said were routine. When a cow collapsed on its way to the slaughter box, two workers immediately jumped into the chute. One grabbed the cow by its tail and the other shocked it with electrical prods, he said. When that failed, workers killed the cow on the spot, hooked a chain around the animal’s neck and dragged it all the way into the slaughter box on its knees.
Cattle that cannot walk — called downer cattle — have a higher occurrence of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and are supposed to be euthanized on the spot and removed immediately.
As the investigator toiled in 100-degree heat, sweaty and smelly, he documented the actions through a pinhole camera he wore under his shirt and controlled with a switch in his pocket, he said. With only one hour of recording capability each day, he constantly had to make judgment calls and save his tape for what he saw as the most egregious practices.
He said he saw weaker animals being prodded upright, or having water shot into their nostrils before shakily walking to slaughter. Some downer cows were hauled with chains. He said a supervisor would order his men to “get them up! Get them up!” when cows seemed too sick to walk.
But government officials charged with inspecting the process were never present to witness such actions, he said.
“There just wasn’t that level of oversight,” he said. “As cows are making their final steps, there’s no USDA personnel objecting to this behavior.”
This inadequate level of oversight comes in an industry that gets a lot of federal scrutiny, relatively speaking. USDA inspectors are required to visit meat-processing facilities daily, although unfilled vacancies at the agency mean that inspectors have to cover more facilities and spend less time at each one. The USDA gets a large share of food-safety dollars; FDA, on the other hand, is responsible for 80% of our nation’s food but gets roughly one-third the food-safety budget.
Meatpacking plants could also use a lot more attention from OSHA inspectors. Like poultry-plant employees, slaughterhouse workers perform repetitive movements at a punishing pace, facing a high injury rate for low wages. Companies are not eager to report injuries, and undocumented workers, who make up much of the staff, are often afraid to speak up about problems.
What’s the solution? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll suggest that if we want our food to be safe, we have to be willing to pay for a stronger food safety system. When it comes to meat, I’ll add that factory farming (or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) is terrible for the environment. It creates tons of noxious waste, and is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plus, producing corn and fish meal to feed to livestock is an inefficient use of resources. And then the push for cheap meat speeds up the assembly-line in meat-processing plants, and worker injuries abound.
If we want meat that’s less problematic, it’ll have to be raised in less-concentrated operations with animals eating what they’re best suited to eat, rather than what’s cheapest and will make them grow the fastest. It’ll have to be processed in facilities that prioritize worker health and safety. All this will make meat more expensive – so, we might just have to eat less of it.
One of my friends watched the undercover investigator’s video of the Hallmark slaughterhouse, and has now decided that she’s not going to eat beef anymore. For those who are feeling the same way, you might want to check out Meatless Monday, a nonprofit organization that offers easy recipes to help people eat meat-free meals once a week. Their goal is to help Americans prevent heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, the four leading causes of death in this country (and they work in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health). Veggie chili sounds pretty good right now.