By Dina Eliash Robinson
Scary Video —- Earlier this year, an undercover video shot by members of the Humane Society of the United States revealed that Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. of Chino, California—a major meat processor—was using torture to move ‘downer’ cows to slaughter and into the nation’s food supply. ‘Downer” is a name used for animals who collapse and cannot move under their own power. Since these symptoms are associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow” disease, federal law prohibits the inclusion of such non-ambulatory, or ‘downer’ animals in the human food supply.
Wriggling Through Loopholes —- Unfortunately, loopholes in the law and the cozy relationships that have developed between meat producing corporations and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors under that agency’s current leadership, have resulted in repeated sales of contaminated meat. Congress has been promising for years to close those loopholes. But until they do, prudent consumers may want to switch to meats obtained from organic, free-range and/or pasture grazing livestock—not just beef, but also lamb, pork and fowl, for reasons outlined below.
Mad Cow Disease is believed to have been caused by the addition of cattle parts to bovine feed—in effect, transforming animals that are by nature herbivores, into cannibalistic carnivores. Meat producers increased their profits by replacing some of the expensive grains and other nutrients in cattle feed with ground up animal waste, left over from processing—such as the previously discarded hooves, heads, spines and other parts not fit for consumption. It was assumed that this higher protein diet—along with growth hormones and other additives—would accelerate the animals’ maturation, as well as increase their size. As far as we know, little if any thought was given to the fact that a herbivore’s digestive system might not be able to assimilate meat, or to the possibility that eating members of its own species might cause other harmful effects.
Scientists eventually concluded that this practice sickened some cattle with BSE (mad cow), and that the disease had been spread through the inclusion of their contaminated body-parts in feed that was then distributed in the U.S. and exported to other countries.
The calamity was further compounded by the use of this feed in the sheep, pig and poultry industries. Some people who ate the contaminated animals and birds became sick and died. Their numbers so far have been small, because mad cow disease has a five to 20-year incubation period. Perhaps if more consumers would have shown up with symptoms in doctors offices shortly after eating contaminated meat, scientists and politicians would have moved faster to create—and strictly enforce—laws to keep ‘downer’ cattle out of our food supply.
Another obstacle to quick detection and preventive measures was the fact that BSE’s prions-related symptoms and inevitable outcome closely resemble those of Alzheimer’s disease—which has led to no one knows how many mistaken diagnoses.
Short-Term Profits, Long-Term Damage —- You would think that as soon as the existence, cause and prevention of BSE became common knowledge, the U.S. Government would move swiftly to protect public health and safety.
You would think that meat processors would keep downer cattle out of the food supply to maintain consumer trust and protect their industry’s profitability.
You would think that feed producers would recall and destroy ALL feed that contained animal parts, and leave such potentially contaminated parts out of all their future products—a small price to pay for preventing the loss of customers and ending up in court. Yeah, you’d think… wouldn’t you?
But unfortunately, when it comes to the vested interests of politicians catering to their constituencies and campaign contributors, as well as those of business and corporate shareholders, public health and safety are low priorities. Although one can’t help but wonder if those who care so little for human beings realize that they and their families also share the danger?
One Or All? —- Telecast by the media, the Humane Society’s videotape horrified viewers with its depiction of cruelty to sick cows, but also caused them to fear the possibility of having been exposed to contaminated meat. What’s more, since Hallmark/Westland had been randomly selected by the Humane Society for its video-snooping, consumers continue to worry that similar abuses—of both livestock and federal food-safety regulations—might be occurring throughout the entire meat processing industry.
Well-Grounded Suspicion —- Especially since the quantities of recalled beef seem on the rise—though not always caused by the same contaminants. Just months before the Hallmark/Westland scandal, Topps Meats Co. of New Jersey went bankrupt following the recall of its 21.7 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated frozen meat that had sickened people in New York and Florida. This was preceded by a 1997 recall of 25 million pounds of E. coli-infected beef produced by the Hudson Foods Company’s Columbus, Nebraska plant. And so on… It’s enough to convert anyone to vegetarianism.
The Booby Prize For the biggest recall in U.S. history, at least so far, goes to Hallmark/Westland. Its videotaped cruelty to, and inclusion of sick cattle in meat products later sold to the public, grabbed media headlines, scared consumers and prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue a recall for 143 million pounds of beef. But oops!…
Too Little, Too Late —- Unfortunately, by then most of the meat had already been consumed by public school children, prison populations, military personnel, fast food customers and others who purchased Hallmark/Westland products at various retail establishments around the country.
Congress Steps In —- As news of this calamity spread, it triggered a Congressional investigation. Televised hearings revealed that the USDA has become too cozy with the meat industry, and neglected its watchdog role of protecting the safety of our food supply.
Liars On The Hotseat —- Squirming under Congressional questioning, Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer asserted that USDA rules consider it safe to occasionally allow ‘downer’ cattle into the nation’s food supply—provided it had undergone an additional inspection and been judged safe for consumption by a veterinarian. Schafer even had the chutzpah to say that “… the rules in place are such where we are protecting the supply.” (How on earth could anyone—even the most brilliant and insightful veterinarian— ‘judge’ in minutes, and without a single laboratory test, the health status of an animal that has collapsed, cannot move, and exhibits other symptoms of mad cow disease? )
Counterpunch —- Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, firmly rejected Schafer’s outrageous statement, retorting, “We cannot allow a single downer cow to enter our food supply under any circumstances.” Calling for “tougher standards,” Sen. Kohl specified “round-the-clock surveillance, and stiffer penalties to ensure our meat inspection system protects Americans.” He also wanted to know why the abuse of cows was discovered by an animal protection organization, instead of the five USDA’s inspectors that were in charge of supervising operations at the Hallmark slaughterhouse.
Isn’t This Perjury? —- Another “I-can’t-believe-this” moment came when Hallmark / Westland President Steve Mendell blatantly denied that disabled animals were ever slaughtered in his company’s plant. He changed his tune only after he was shown the Humane Society’s videotaped evidence. Shamefaced, he admitted that “it was logical to believe that at least one downer animal had been included” in Westland/ Hallmark’s meat production.
Repent When Caught? —- More admissions followed once the federal Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) proclaimed that the slaughtered cattle had not received ‘complete and proper inspection.’ As a result, FSIS promptly suspended Secretary Schafer, and canceled government food contracts with Hallmark/Westland. Upon which, the newly converted Schafer intoned: “I am dismayed by the inhumane handling of cattle that resulted in the violation of food safety regulations.”
Media Failure —- Sadly, the mainstream media not only failed to dig deeper into, and cover all aspects of this still unfolding story, but seem to have abandoned it. Even as Congressional investigation of this case continues, and additional unsavory facts about the meat industry are coming to light.
FreeRangeClub Stays On The Story —- While tracking the Hallmark/Westland-Humane Society story about the tortured processing of downed cattle, we came across another series of actions by the USDA and about 10,000 meat distributors—including ConAgra, Nestle, H.J. Heinz and General Foods—that demonstrate their outrageous arrogance and callous (possibly criminal) disregard for public health and safety.
(1) The distributors sold recalled meat from the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse after it had been shut down.
(2) When questioned by the House Appropriation’s agriculture panel about the stores and other locations where the contaminated meat might still be on sale, Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety, refused to disclose this information. Why? Because he believed that revealing the names and locations of those retailers could drive their customers away and “confuse” people and trade groups, such as the Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association and American Meat Institute. Huh? Mr. Raymond’s stonewalling was later explained by reports that the Bush Administration’s policy was to oppose the publicizing of retailers’ names in meat recalls.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), demanded that the list of distributors involved be presented to Congress within a week. “This is a very, very critically important issue,” he said. “If we have stores that are selling bad products, we should know about it.”
Eventually, a 120-page document was produced, listing more than 400 restaurants and food outlets that had purchased Hallmark/Westland meat products. Among them were Costco, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box. The list—which continues to be added to—can be viewed on the web site of the California Department of Public Health.
Not The First Time —- Sadly, these so called ‘shield laws’ have been protecting the meat industry’s profits, rather than the public health, since the mad cow scare began. They had protected, for example, the identities of Texas and Alabama ranches where sick cattle were discovered in 2004 and 2006, as well as those of 11 California restaurants that served meats confirmed in 2003 to be from cattle contaminated with BSE. It was this that compelled former state Sen. Jackie Speier to back a 2006 California law that forced distributors of recalled foods to disclose where they were.
History Repeats Itself —- In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, “The Jungle,” revealed the sickening conditions under which the nation’s meat products were processed. In only eight pages of his book, Sinclair described in graphic detail and with reportorial precision the filth, greed and corruption that made the Chicago stockyards a source of human misery and disease. Yet these gruesome eight pages were enough to horrify the nation and prompt President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress to initiate reforms in the country’s entire food and medicine production system.
As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established, and soon the growing population and increased food production made it necessary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take over regulatory controls of the handling, quality and safety of meat products and other foods.
More than a century separates the novel that had triggered life-saving reforms in meat production, from the Humane Society’s videotape of the Hallmark/Westland abuses that horrified the public and prompted “the big recall” and current Congressional hearings. Let’s hope that those years of backsliding into corruption and neglect will now be reversed, and this time, the U.S. Government will put in place a system that will safeguard the nation’s food supply for good.
Scapegoats Or Culprits? —- The Christian Science Monitor reported that two Hallmark/Westland employees were fired by the company for abusing the cattle. The Washington Post reported that the two employees face animal cruelty charges in California—and that ‘senior management was not aware of the use of extreme measures to get sick cattle upright.’
(1) Did the employees act on their own initiative, or were they ordered or trained to get sick cows by force, if necessary, into the ‘kill box’ ?
(2) If it was their idea, how come no one told them to stop?
(3) If co-workers and/or managers and USDA inspectors did not see them do it, why not? Weren’t at least the managers and inspectors supposed to check on the workers?
(4) If they didn’t, why aren’t they brought up on charges?
(5) If the workers were doing merely what they had been instructed to do, why aren’t they trying to get their jobs back by blowing the whistle on the bosses to prove their innocence? Could it be that they are easily intimidated undocumented immigrants or day laborers?
(6) What about the responsibility of those in charge—i.e. the company’s CEO, the USDA’s head and inspectors?…
More Bits And Pieces… —- The Baltimore Sun quoted Lisa Shames, a Congressional researcher with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying that food inspectors at plants she had visited complained about being ‘stretched thin.’
However, during a hearing before a House subcommittee, Richard Raymond, undersecretary for food safety, said that the USDA is adequately staffed since it has hired 194 new food inspectors last year.
If so… (1) Is the USDA not using its human resources efficiently? Or (2) are its inspectors making themselves scarce when the companies whose operations they are hired to inspect ask them to look the other way?
Want To Join Forces To Protect Yourself And Others? —-Since we’re all in this mess together, your input and participation is indispensable to helping reform the current regulatory system, and to bringing about improvements in the safety and quality of our food supply.
Oh, and let’s not forget that since the United States is both a major food producer and exporter, this issue does not only affect the nation’s health, but also its economy and reputation. (Just think about Japan’s and other countries’ refusal to buy our beef. Or of the hit China’s food and toy exports have been taking since they were found to contain toxic substances. )
So, take a few minutes to plug into our discussions… Those of you blessed with curiosity and courage to nose around, help us ferret out unsafe foods and food production practices… Or if you’ve come up with ways to find the best morsels, do share your healthy eating tips with fellow FreeRangeClub members…
Above all, ask and answer questions… Teach us what you know… Correct our errors… And most important: please let us know how we could improve our content to better serve your nutritional needs.
IT’S EASY…. Just e-mail your comments, questions and advice to Free Range Club!