Monday, February 18, 2008

The further cost of cheap food

The largest food recall in US history has just taken place. Officials at the Westland/Hallmark meat packing plant were recently ordered to recall 143 million pounds of ground beef, some 37 million of which were sold to the the federal school lunch program, and which, officials acknowledge, has mostly already been eaten.

The recall, which covers meat dating back to February 2006, is due to the fact that non-ambulatory cattle may have entered the food chain in violation of food safety laws. At the same time, two employees of the Southern California slaughterhouse are charged with criminal animal cruelty for the way they handled these so-called downer cows.

Say what you will about the Humane Society of the US -- they are a crooked bunch -- but they managed to get their hands on some incredibly damning video shot at the plant. It showed two workers using a forklift to shove, prod, and lift down cattle out the way. They were also captured on tape pulling down cattle around by one leg over manure-soaked concrete yards, using a shock prod repeatedly on cattle that could not stand, and turning a high-pressure hose on a down cow.

Westland/Hallmark appears to be trying to pass this off as a couple of bad employees in an otherwise good plant. In a statement on the company's website, president Steve Mendell defended his company's record on the humane treatment of animals entering the plant.

"Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 thru November 14, 2007," Mendell said in the statement. "We have taken swift action regarding the two employees identified on the video and have already implemented aggressive measures to ensure all employees follow our humane handling policies and procedures. We are also cooperating with the USDA investigators on the allegations of inhumane handling treatment which is a serious breech of our company’s policies and training."

Both employees were fired.

Mendell went on to defend his company's food safety compliance thus: "Finally, I proudly assure our customers that we comply with all USDA requirements, including the requirement that only ambulatory livestock may enter the harvest facility to be processed for human food. I am confident that we have met this high regulatory standard."

The reason the meat was recalled and the plant shut down was because since 2006 there has been a ban on downer cattle entering the human food chain. Apparently the animals in question in this case were cleared for slaughter by the USDA inspector on site, but at some point between that clearance and their slaughter they became non-ambulatory. The regulations require that the inspector be notified and the animal re-inspected. That didn't happen in this case.

I don't know very much about Westland/Hallmark, but it appears from the video to be a plant that specialized in what are known as cull cows -- dairy cow that are being sold for meat for one reason or another. There are more and more of this kind of cow entering the market these days because, with milk prices at record highs, dairy farms are attempting to push cattle for higher and higher levels of production. Some of the large factory dairy farms are now averaging just one lactation per cow before some major system fails and she has to be sent off as a cull.

Typically cull cows are a source of hamburger. Their milk production keeps the level of finish or fat very low in their meat, making it less desirable for steaks and roasts. In the industrial food system, this source of lean meat is desirable because it can be sold as is -- ever buy "diet lean" hamburger? -- or mixed with cheap suet to make any grade of hamburger.

But hamburger production is a high-volume, low-margin business. All the meat must be removed from those dairy cattle's bones more or less by hand. There's tremendous pressure to move product through the system. Hundreds if not thousands of cattle are slaughtered every day at a plant like the one where these atrocities took place. Downer cattle are, at the very least, a bother, and at worst, might mean that someone's quota gets missed.

Plants like the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse can't exist without a large supply of cattle within a reasonable shipping distance. With the concentration of dairy in the irrigated areas of Southern California, plants like this one become not only possible, but virtually a necessity. When a single dairy farm is milking thousands of cows -- even tens of thousands in some cases -- there will be a certain number that will leave the farm every day.

On the alter of cheap milk, we sacrifice cows as we push them for maximum production. When they break down, we ship them off for hamburger to a plant where, in the name of cheap hamburger, we sacrifice our humanity. It's all very carefully kept out of sight and out of mind. Neither of these businesses would be possible without the artificially environment of irrigated cropland in the arid and semi-arid regions of California -- an environment made possible by taxpayer subsidized irrigation schemes and crop programs.

So what can you do? If you don't have one already, buy a freezer. Find a local source for your meat. Talk to the farmer or rancher who raises the animals, and order a half or a quarter of a steer. Talk to them about where and how their animals are slaughtered, and how they're handled and raised. Pay a little bit more for your meat if you have to. It's a small price to pay for your humanity.

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