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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- BEEF RECALL RAISES MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANIMAL ABUSE

by: Wes Ishmael

Another day, another black eye for beef, courtesy of forces beyond producers' control.

As you likely know by now, USDA recalled 143 million pounds of frozen ground beef February 17, not because of safety concerns, specifically, but because of the now dog-eared abundance of caution. In this case, concerns cattle that had passed ante mortem inspection at a Chino, California harvest facility later became non-ambulatory and were not reinspected.

It all started January 30 with an undercover video-tape from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which allegedly showed employees at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company (HWMP) abusing downer dairy cattle in a way that would cause producers to pistol whip anybody they found doing such a thing. That same day, USDA placed an administrative hold on all HWMP (Hallmark is the harvest portion of the business) products because of potential violations of regulatory requirements and contractual terms as a supplier of products to the Federal food and nutrition programs. The company voluntarily ceased operations February 1.

“On Feb. 4, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suspended inspection at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company based on the establishment's clear violation of Federal regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This Notice of Suspension is a regulatory course of action available when FSIS finds egregious violations of humane handling regulations,” said Richard Raymond, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety.

On February 17 Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer explained, “USDA is announcing additional actions as a result of the ongoing investigation at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations. Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection FSIS has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall.” As an additional safeguard against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, non-ambulatory cattle are prohibited from entering the food supply.

That recall is for two years worth of production, most of it likely already consumed. The 143 million tons represents the largest beef recall in history. According to Ron Vogel with Food Nutrition Services, about 37 million pounds of the 143 million pounds of recalled product was destined for the School Lunch Program and other domestic nutrition programs.

“I am dismayed at the in-humane handling of cattle that has resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards; however, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations,” said Schafer.

Two days before that the San Bernardino District Attorney filed felony animal cruelty charges against two employees fired by the meat company.

While Rome Burns…

That such egregious animal abuse happened is unconscionable. That it's something beyond the control of producers is more than frustrating. That it's the latest example of food-related policy and oversight ineptitude by government and private industry—casting consumer doubt on the beef industry—demands answers.

For starters, how could this happen if government inspectors are doing their jobs?

According to Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for the Food Safety Inspection Service, there are about 7,800 USDA personnel providing inspections at about 6,200 federally inspected establishments—about 600 of those beef harvest facilities.

For the record, Petersen says last year 12 establishments were suspended for egregious humane handling violations that were witnessed by inspection personnel. In addition, 650 other inhumane practices were documented.

“Every head of livestock that comes to slaughter in the United States is inspected prior to slaughter, what we call ante-mortem, and it's inspected on ante-mortem by either one of my public health veterinarians or one of our inspectors. And what they look for is to make sure that the animal is suitable to proceed to slaughter. Some animals we condemn on ante-mortem and most animals upon that inspection pass ante-mortem inspection and then proceed into slaughter,” explains Petersen. “Inspectors regularly observe the handling of animals at any time before, during and after that ante-mortem inspection, and we take immediate control if we observe any humane handling violations.”

However, at HMS, a single-shift plant (eight hours), Petersen also says, “We're spending about an hour and a half a day, again randomly throughout the day, doing these humane handling assessments in addition to our routine ante-mortem inspection.”

Hmmm…90 minutes doing all of the ante-mortem inspections, plus assessing humane handling and treatment throughout the plant, then the rest of the time on post-mortem inspections. Sure sounds like there's plenty of opportunity for initially ambulatory cattle to become non-ambulatory and slip through the cracks. But that's not the point.

Paradoxically, why in the world would you recall 143 million pounds of beef when the human health risk seems all but nil, and no sicknesses related to the product have been reported. Even William Marler, a prominent personal injury and products liability lawyer who began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993 said in his blog February 23, “Is this massive recall really necessary? Rumor has it that this massive meat recall will be expanded to food items—tomato sauce, burritos, pizzas—what else? To date, there are no ill people. Is this really necessary—especially the potential for an expanded one?” But that's not the point, either.

Time to Quit Passing the Buck

Whether it's this, BSE, melamine, e. Coli-based recalls of beef and other agricultural products, whenever a problem crops up everybody races to be the first to say that it's a problem and something needs to be done: they want more supervision, testing, assurance. But no one is willing to do more than chatter.

Consider a February 19 letter to Congress from 29 livestock and meat organizations, including National Cattlemen's Beef Association and American Meat Institute (AMI). The letter urges Congress to reject new user fees for meat, poultry and egg products inspection proposed in the federal 2009 budget.

“We know of no farm or industry organization that supports imposing a tax to pay for meat, poultry and egg products inspection,” says the letter. “We urge Congress to continue to oppose proposals to assess new user fees, either in whole or in part, to fund federally mandated meat, poultry or egg products inspection. These “user fees” for government-mandated food safety inspection programs represent an additional $96 million tax on consumers, livestock and poultry producers and the meat, poultry and egg processing industries.”

This particular food tax may very well need defeating. But why are there no solutions offered as a substitute by the same organizations?

There's at least one program I'm intimately familiar with which would set the wheels in motion for meat products and other agricultural products to be certified traceable from the pasture or field forward. The system includes the ability to apply myriad food safety intervention on a cost-plus basis. The system has been presented to a number of the largest packers and retailers over the past four years. No takers. Maybe it's because this particular system, though owned by all users, gives producers the upperhand in being paid for supplying added value product safety enhancements, rather than simply giving them away as a condition of sale made by buyers.

No one beyond the producer seems willing to take responsibility for their role. A few years back, you wanted to sell cattle you had to sign an affidavit guaranteeing you'd never fed mammalian product (meat and bone meal) to your cattle. It was a condition of sale. Buyers have tried the same thing with source and age verification at times, and have more than hinted at the fact that complying with Country of Origin Labeling will be the producer's responsibility, not theirs.

Maybe it's time, especially in this age of short cattle supplies and excess feeding and packing capacity for producers to set some conditions of sale for the buyer, like: Get off the dime and quit jeopardizing my livelihood with your illogic and inaction.

Who Knew What and When?

Apparently HSUS had video and information about the animal abuse violations for an extended period of time before making them public. The organization had the person who did the video-taping hire on at HWMP. What sort of culpability exists when you know something like that and don't say anything until it fits your political agenda?

“It is unfortunate that the Humane Society of the United States did not present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007. Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time,” explained Schafer.

According to HSUS, “The HSUS turned over to appropriate California law enforcement officials extensive videotape evidence once the investigation was concluded. Local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information.”

“The original delay was unacceptable, prolonged a bad practice and complicated the federal investigation,” said Mark Dopp, AMI Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel. “This additional delay in turning over other relevant information is unconscionable. It has created weeks of uncertainty and needless concern for school districts nationwide.”

Like others in the beef and cattle industries, Dopp condemned the handling practices depicted in the undercover video and said they stand in sharp contrast to typical animal handling practice in the meat industry. “They also do not comply with the industry best practices included in the AMI Foundation Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide, which are widely used by industry and endorsed by groups like the American Humane Association,” he said.

By February 23, numerous reports began to surface, unsurprisingly, that economics would force HWMP to close its doors permanently.

Nobody wins.

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