Turn Your Head and Barf: What Happens When the USDA Looks the Other Way

Had the Humane Society not released the animal cruelty videos, would the practice of mass processing sick cattle into "food" have ever been questioned or brought to the fore?
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It's been an interesting week in the food world, as most of us know.

We like to do things really big in America, and so, on the one hand, we've witnessed an historical event in the recall of exactly 143,383,823 pounds of raw and frozen beef products produced by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company; on the other hand, as misreported virtually everywhere, the USDA -- that branch of the federal government whose mission statement it is to "provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management" -- did not, in fact, mandate the recall [PDF]. Why? Did you see anything about safety in the department's general mission statement? I didn't.

In a fancy bit of semantics resulting, ultimately, in the USDA washing their hands of any responsibility for this truly stellar turn of events (and forestalling any further investigation into the department's Good job Brownie-like cronyistic bumblings), Secretary of Agriculture and former Republican governor of North Dakota Ed Schafer announced, in a statement released to the press on February 17th 2008, that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) "determined [the cattle] to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall."

In a remarkable display of what happens when the fox is in charge of the henhouse, the USDA, who fell down on the job to begin with, determined the cattle to be unfit for human food only after shocking videos of downer animals being treated viciously before becoming chopped meat were obtained by the Humane Society of the United States in an undercover investigation, and then released.

The question is, of course, had the Humane Society not released these videos, would what is the very likely common practice of mass processing sick cattle into "food" have ever been questioned or brought to the fore? Would the shockingly cruel treatment of these animals ever been brought to light? Could the USDA floor inspectors--who have doubtless witnessed this kind of treatment of cattle--be counted upon to do the right thing to protect their employers (that would be us, as in We the People)? Or would they simply turn their heads, look the other way, and go home to the little woman and kids at the end of a hard day's work?

This is where towing the proverbial party line comes in; to be clear, this turn of events was obviously underplayed by the USDA, since the February 17th, 2008 Recall Release issued by the USDA determined the health risk to be low, at Class II. (The USDA scales recalls from I to III; Class I involves a health hazard situation in which there is reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems, or death; Class II involves a potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food; Class III involves a situation in which the food will not cause adverse health consequences.) And how do we know that the health risk is low?

Because, the USDA has insisted, no one has gotten sick, including none of the kids who consumed the 20 million pounds of Hallmark/Westland beef shipped to Federal school lunch programs. But how many reports of meat-related illness have there been from February 1st 2006-February 2, 2008, when the meat was produced? Between January 2007 and October 2007 alone, 272 meat-associated salmonella cases were reported to the CDC in 35 states. Did they result from the consumption of food processed at Hallmark/Westland? Possibly not; then again, possibly so, since the USDA, once they pinpoint the location of tainted meat, isn't required to release that information, as the department's Dr . Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for the FSIS indicated in a recent technical briefing following the Hallmark/Westland recall. Asked by New York Times reporter Andrew Martin whether or not the location of this meat could be found, Petersen responded in a profoundly Rumsfeldian manner:

ANDREW MARTIN: I just had a quick question, and that is, do you plan to release the places where this meat went? And if not, why not?

DR. PETERSEN: As some of the folks know, I think you've tracked some of the things we do in FSIS, beginning a couple years ago, it really started with a petition but also through some other external interests in initiated rulemaking to provide for that, meaning notification to the public of locations of distribution as we talked about the beginning, throughout the distribution chain. Store by store.

Currently, and that was really the basis for the rulemaking, that information was considered proprietary information. That is, the customers of the businesses was considered proprietary. That's the regulation that's on our books today. And so we've done a proposed rule, we've gotten comments on the proposed rule, and we're ready to issue a final rule. I can't give you a date on that. It's intended to be sometime this year. Our intent is to final that rule. So it kind of depends on in this particular recall when that rule goes final. And that's not something I personally would have any influence over. But technically today I would not post them. If the rule was issued next week, then theoretically we could post them. That's the rules we're living with today.

As of this writing, the possibility exists that illness resulting from the processing of downed cattle may be impending: today, the Wall Street Journal has reported that the beef industry is already clamoring for a reduced recall, because of its financial impact on said industry. And what would happen then? The other 30 million pounds of school-bound beef processed from these sick creatures will likely be released for consumption. The spiraling problem doesn't end there: the USDA is now considering exempting from recall any Hallmark/Westland meat that has been co-mingled with other supplier's meat, making it virtually untraceable.

My localvore food friends shake their heads in dismay when we talk about this sorry story. "This is a good reason to buy your meat from a local producer who specializes in raising cattle humanely," one of them said, and I couldn't disagree. And so I went on line to my local Connecticut grass-fed beef producer; about to place an order, I detoured to the site's About Our Beef page and found this telling bit of information:

"Our beef is processed in a USDA plant, supervised by USDA veterinarians."

So what? So was the beef processed at Hallmark/Westland.

Who knows how this sad, deadly tale of safety manipulation, cruelty, and greed will unfold; countless hours have been spent discussing the efficacy of the meat distribution process and federal employees who look the other way because either they can't be bothered to do their jobs, or (one surmises) they've been appointed by friends in high places (USDA Secretary Ed Schafer, appointed by George Bush, was formerly governor of a state that produces 90% of our nation's canola crop, 75% of which is Monsanto's Roundup Ready GMO variety). Very limited focus has been placed on the care and respect--in life, and in death--of these sentient beings who spend their lives on feed lots, only to wind up being forklifted to a bitter end. Very little focus has been afforded to the safety of our children, especially the poor ones whose most substantial meal of the day often comes from Federal school lunch programs.

A day or so after this story hit the press, I was driving to work and listening to NPR; the United States Olympic Committee, it seems, is preparing to bring its own food to China for this summer's games. Why?

"It's safer."