When February’s historically huge beef recall hit the news I was sitting in an airport. It seemed ironic, having just returned from a country where visitors fear food-borne microbes. But this recall wasn’t about E. coli, the usual culprit in beef recalls in the US. Instead, a video from a weeks-long undercover investigation by the Humane Society caught workers at the Hallmark/Westland meatpacking plant (slaughterhouse) abusing downed cows, or “nonambulatory” ones, as technical lingo calls animals that are too injured, sick, or weak to stand.
In the video, workers shove and roll the collapsed cows with a forklift, repeatedly jab them with a cattleprod, and spray water at high pressure up a crippled cow’s nose. The point was to get these “spent” dairy cows to enter the building of their own accord; otherwise a vet would have to clear them for slaughter.
Kenneth Peterson of the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for meat inspection and safety, in an interview with PBS in late February, said what happened at Hallmark/Westland is “an aberration” and that “I have inspectors present in the plant that look for these very same kind of practices.” But it was the Humane Society, not the USDA inspectors, who blew the whistle. Nonetheless, Secretary for the Department of Agriculture, Ed Schafer, said in a press release, “We are confident in our inspection system and the food safety regulations that ensure the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply.”
Still, the USDA has indefinitely terminated Hallmark/Westland’s operations and recalled 143 million pounds of beef that came out of the plant over the last two years. Most of it has been eaten. Much of it went to public schools, supplied free from the federal government’s subsidy programs. Mike Robinson, Food Director for New Paltz school district, says he destroyed about a meal’s worth of ground beef, and a couple meals of burgers; several more meals’ worth from the Hallmark/Westland batch had already been consumed.
Down, but not out, of the foodstream
To be clear, the beef recall wasn’t prompted by animal abuse per se, but because the downed cattle were being slaughtered, processed, and shipped as food. It is illegal to process downer cows because of the likelihood that they will introduce pathogens into our food. (No legislation exists yet for other food animals.) The law banning downed cattle from food owes its beginnings to Farm Sanctuary, the country’s premier food animal watchdog organization born from the rescue of a downed sheep found on a pile of dead animals at a slaughterhouse.
“In 1999 we petitioned the USDA,” said Farm Sanctuary’s cofounder and CEO Gene Baur in a phone interview, “saying that downed animals are diseased and shouldn’t be in our food. It’s very simple. But the USDA’s response at that time was that downed animals are okay for food, and they countered our assertion that it would be a small economic burden [not to use downed animals] by saying it would in fact be a big economic burden.” That implies downed animals are used often enough to figure in a plant’s profits.
Through an ensuing legal battle, the USDA agreed in 2004 to an interim ban on downed cattle, shortly after news that BSE (bovine spongioform encephalitis) was found in a US cow. But, Baur explained, the rule was altered when it was made permanent in 2007. “The USDA changed it to say that if the animal walks off the truck [on arrival at the slaughterhouse], but goes down before slaughter, it can be checked by a vet, okayed, and used for food. That leaves a huge loophole where short term economic gain runs counter to longterm consumer health.”
What does “okayed” mean? “Basically the inspector looks to see if the animal is alive and breathing,” said Baur. “I’ve talked to people at the plants who confirm this. We have seen for the last 20 years that the slaughterhouses will exploit that loophole. Downed animals get slaughtered for food.”
Mad cows in the mix?
Some cows are just “obstinate” or “tired,” said Kenneth Peterson of the USDA after viewing the ones in Hallmark/Westland video. But Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign, knows otherwise. “These are animals who were so crippled that even upon being tortured they were unable to rise. Downers are a pervasive problem, especially in the dairy industry. The animals have been selectively bred for astronomical rates of milk production. They are more prone to lameness and mastitis” (infection of the udders). And muscle weakness and collapse is a symptom of BSE.