The Wrong Approach to Meat

If you haven’t heard yet, USDA has ordered the largest meat recall in U.S. history – 143 million pounds of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. USDA officials believe that the meat distributed by the company poses little or no hazard to consumers, which is fortunate, because much of it has been eaten already. It’s being recalled because the company failed to follow procedures necessary to prevent sick cows from entering the food supply.

Violations at the Hallmark meat packing facility came to light a few weeks ago, when an undercover Humane Society investigator released video he’d secretly filmed while working at the slaughterhouse. Steve Chawkins and Victoria Kim interviewed him for the LA Times:

From his first day, he started getting glimpses of alleged illegal actions that he said were routine. When a cow collapsed on its way to the slaughter box, two workers immediately jumped into the chute. One grabbed the cow by its tail and the other shocked it with electrical prods, he said. When that failed, workers killed the cow on the spot, hooked a chain around the animal’s neck and dragged it all the way into the slaughter box on its knees.

Cattle that cannot walk — called downer cattle — have a higher occurrence of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and are supposed to be euthanized on the spot and removed immediately.

As the investigator toiled in 100-degree heat, sweaty and smelly, he documented the actions through a pinhole camera he wore under his shirt and controlled with a switch in his pocket, he said. With only one hour of recording capability each day, he constantly had to make judgment calls and save his tape for what he saw as the most egregious practices.

He said he saw weaker animals being prodded upright, or having water shot into their nostrils before shakily walking to slaughter. Some downer cows were hauled with chains. He said a supervisor would order his men to “get them up! Get them up!” when cows seemed too sick to walk.

But government officials charged with inspecting the process were never present to witness such actions, he said.

“There just wasn’t that level of oversight,” he said. “As cows are making their final steps, there’s no USDA personnel objecting to this behavior.”

This inadequate level of oversight comes in an industry that gets a lot of federal scrutiny, relatively speaking. USDA inspectors are required to visit meat-processing facilities daily, although unfilled vacancies at the agency mean that inspectors have to cover more facilities and spend less time at each one. The USDA gets a large share of food-safety dollars; FDA, on the other hand, is responsible for 80% of our nation’s food but gets roughly one-third the food-safety budget.

Meatpacking plants could also use a lot more attention from OSHA inspectors. Like poultry-plant employees, slaughterhouse workers perform repetitive movements at a punishing pace, facing a high injury rate for low wages. Companies are not eager to report injuries, and undocumented workers, who make up much of the staff, are often afraid to speak up about problems.

What’s the solution? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll suggest that if we want our food to be safe, we have to be willing to pay for a stronger food safety system. When it comes to meat, I’ll add that factory farming (or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) is terrible for the environment. It creates tons of noxious waste, and is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plus, producing corn and fish meal to feed to livestock is an inefficient use of resources. And then the push for cheap meat speeds up the assembly-line in meat-processing plants, and worker injuries abound.

If we want meat that’s less problematic, it’ll have to be raised in less-concentrated operations with animals eating what they’re best suited to eat, rather than what’s cheapest and will make them grow the fastest. It’ll have to be processed in facilities that prioritize worker health and safety. All this will make meat more expensive – so, we might just have to eat less of it.

One of my friends watched the undercover investigator’s video of the Hallmark slaughterhouse, and has now decided that she’s not going to eat beef anymore. For those who are feeling the same way, you might want to check out Meatless Monday, a nonprofit organization that offers easy recipes to help people eat meat-free meals once a week. Their goal is to help Americans prevent heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, the four leading causes of death in this country (and they work in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health). Veggie chili sounds pretty good right now.

Comments

  1. #1 joe4peace
    February 20, 2008

    It was simply not bearable to watch the video. While I am not a vegetarian I have reduced the amount of meat I personally eat substantially for many different reasons. 1. Provide more grain for feeding the world. 2. Less consumption of water. 3. Less violence toward animals. 4. Great personal health benefits. I am not yet ready to jump on the vegetarian bandwagon 100%, but when we buy our food more locally, we contribute to the betterment of the world and ourselves in many ways.

  2. #2 Liz
    February 20, 2008

    I think you’ve got the right idea, joe – reducing meat consumption doesn’t have to mean being 100% vegetarian. We’d be a lot better off if more people cut their meat consumption in half, for instance.

  3. #3 Caveat
    February 20, 2008

    I buy my meat locally now. Four of us split a cow which has been raised properly, fed well and is not full of antibiotics and hormones. We get it from a sod farmer whose hobby is raising and finishing beef. The cow goes to an abbattoir that looks like a hospital and is killed instantly and butchered properly, then hung for awhile. It’s not guilt-free but it’s relatively humane.

    A small freezer like mine (7 cu. ft) holds more meat than I can eat in a year. I give quite a bit away.

    And, it is much more economical overall believe it or not, since we pay by the pound so all cuts are equally priced.

    H$U$ videos are sometimes suspect, since they are not an animal welfare organization but an animal rights group, with an agenda geared towards the end of domestic animal husbandry, much like their associates at Peta. I’m not saying they are making stuff up but I wonder why they held on to the tape for months before handing it over to authorities?

  4. #4 mjs
    February 20, 2008

    What part of the tortured/diseased/steroid-laden cow should one eat? Does the supermarket label its meats accordingly? Picking and choosing one’s portion of flesh from an anti-labor, pain-inflicting, corrupt and polluting industry achieves what, exactly?

    ++++

  5. #5 Liz
    February 20, 2008

    Caveat: There were probably other factors, but I suspect the delay in releasing the tape was at least in part to protect the undercover investigator’s identity.

    mjs:Ideally, one shouldn’t eat factory-farm meat at all (I don’t), but I think that change would be prohibitively difficult for the majority of our population. Reducing meat intake is an easier step that can still do a lot of good.

  6. #6 dianarn
    February 20, 2008

    Decreasing meat consumption will NOT change the way slaughterhouses and meat processing companies handle the animals or their meat. If you want to eat some decent meat, go to a local butcher and ask about their meat. Quit going to Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle because that only promotes those huge agro-farms. Same thing goes for poultry. Chickens are treated just as bad, if not worse. Take 20 mins out of your day and find out a local supplier. It’s not that hard.

    And while we’re at it, be sure to check your deli meats. The FDA approved last year the spraying of a cocktail of bacteriophages (live, bacteria-eating viruses) to be sprayed on lunch meats so they kill the Listeria bacteria, because meat-packing plants are too filthy and are not willing to change their ways. They’re also not required to label meats that are sprayed.

  7. #7 mjs
    February 20, 2008

    Reducing meat intake is an easier step that can still do a lot of good.

    Lord knows, we Americans do prefer the easy steps.

    ++++

  8. #8 Richard
    February 21, 2008

    If I was ever considering to stop eating beef, the video that was aired this week gave me more than one reason. I was as overcome by the violent mishandling of the animals as I was when I saw my first and last bull fight.
    There is absolutely no excuse to treat any animal with such abuses as shown in that video.
    Goodbye steaks, hello tofu.

  9. #9 Karen Haggerty
    February 21, 2008

    There has to be a special place in hell for those responsible for this outrage against helpless and dying cattle……I could barely look at the photos……and I will do everything in my power to help put a stop to this heinous and cruel disregard for these creatures…..to say nothing of the hideously contaminated meat that is gotten from these practices.

  10. #10 bryan
    February 21, 2008

    > There has to be a special place in hell for those responsible for this outrage against helpless and dying cattle…

    Remember that someone who puts a contract out on someone else is responsible for that death, as well as any others that occur in the course of carrying out the hit. Anyone who gives any money to cattle producers whose practices they have not personally verified is equally responsible for the continuation of these barbaric methods. If you’re going to cut down rather than go vegetarian, fine, but at least check out where your meat is coming from… and how.

  11. #11 summer
    February 22, 2008

    I agree. You better make sure that you are getting quality meats and approved by the proper authorities. You must be picky with regards to health matters. That’s all. Nice article!!! Very informative and alarming. Keep up the good work!!!

  12. #12 decrepitoldfool
    February 24, 2008

    It is high time for (lots of) webcams in animal operations. Then I can check to see if the extra bucks I pay for that oxymoron “humane slaughter” has any basis in reality.

    In other news, I have tagged your blog as ‘E’ for Excellent… /offtopic

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