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Largest Beef Recall, Ever. Now, Real Change?

How has the beef industry gotten away with such disregard for animal welfare, human health, and the environment?
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Maybe you're one of the more than 200,000 people who have seen this disturbing video revealing the animal cruelty caught on tape by a Humane Society investigation at a California slaughterhouse. (I, personally, couldn't stomach to watch it).

Whether you saw the video or not, you most certainly have heard the response: Prompted by public outcry, the company that processed meat from this slaughterhouse issued the largest beef recall in U.S. history even though -- oops -- much of the 143 million pounds recalled has already been eaten, including possibly by children in school lunches.

The animal cruelty was disturbing enough, what it revealed about possible threats to human health adds even more reason to be wary of the burger. The Humane Society investigation proved --they've got it on tape -- what many have been saying for years: that a loophole in federal legislation was being used to feed slaughtered "downer" cows into the food supply. Now, downer cows -- those too old or sick to walk or produce milk --are not supposed to find their way into our food. Why not? Because the symptoms of downer cows are the same as other diseases, including mad cow disease. And those slaughtered downers in the video were destined for a processing facility that provides meat not just for average Joe, but for other customers, like the National School Lunch Program. Sloppy Joe's just got that much less appealing.

But let's be clear. This incident -- including the abuse and questionable food safety of the meat from this slaughterhouse -- is not just a case of a few bad apples. It's the inevitable outcome of a system in which animal abuse and health concerns are predictable by-products of following the prime directive -- maximizing profit -- in a context of inadequate oversight.

The brutality captured in the video may be particularly extreme, but the nature of slaughterhouse's ramped-up production inexorably leads to such animal suffering. With pressure to keep lines moving fast, for example, workers often fail to completely stun animals, so that cows can be conscious during slaughter. And those production levels? They're soaring. Tyson, the largest processor in the country, slaughters 222,000 head of cattle a week, the equivalent of 1,321 an hour, seven days a week.

This high-octane production threatens eaters' health, too. Under such conditions, meat can become tainted with fecal matter, increasing the likelihood of contamination with the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Since April 2007, concerns about E. coli instigated recalls of at least 30 million pounds of beef -- enough to have provided a burger to every man, woman, and child in the nation. With this week's recall, add another four for each of us.

The production-at-any-cost beef business also holds the dubious distinction of being one of the country's major polluters, particularly of water. Among the nation's top 10 worst polluters of our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, half are beef production facilities. But that's not the only water pollution. We've got to add to that the pollution from nitrogen fertilizer runoff from cropland devoted to animal feed. This runoff causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico to swell to the size of New Jersey every year, creating dead zones where no aquatic life can survive.

Moreover, as we become clearer about the food system's role in climate change, we learn that the livestock industry -- of which cattle is a significant part -- is one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters, responsible for as much as one-fifth of all emissions. Just think of burgers as mini Hummers-on-a-plate.

How has the beef industry gotten away with such disregard for animal welfare, human health, and the environment?

Part of the answer lies in the growing concentration of power within the industry. Just four companies -- Tyson, Cargill's Excel, Swift & Co., and National Beef -- now control 71 percent of the beef market.

This tightening of control is felt throughout our political system. In the 2006 election cycle, the livestock industry funded lobbyists to the tune of $4.5 million. That same year, PAC and individual contributions from the livestock industry topped $5 million, with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association PAC alone spending almost half a million dollars.

The beef industry also expresses its influence in a revolving door between the industry's largest lobbying organization and our Department of Agriculture. The USDA's Director of Communications, for instance, was formerly the public relations director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The Chief of Staff for past USDA Secretary Ann Veneman had been the Association's executive director of legislative affairs and the USDA's Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs spent more than fifteen years at the Association before taking his post. You get the idea.

The investigation that sparked this recall is part of a broader campaign by Humane Society, which is putting its weight behind the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act to establish higher animal welfare standards and the Downed Animal Protection Act to close the loophole in previous legislation so that the slaughtering of downed animals for human consumption is finally banned. Speaking up for such legislation is one way to ensure that our elected officials hear our voices as loudly as they hear the voice of industry.