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When Your Meat is a Downer

Who knew, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations planned a Feb. 26 hearing to be called, “Contaminated Food: Private Sector Accountability,” it would follow the biggest meat recall in US history?

And who knew, when Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods had to apologize to Congressmen for last year’s beef recall–“I personally will ensure that we will continuously challenge and improve our food safety programs, and make certain that food safety is the centerpiece of our corporate culture,”–he would soon have to apologize for this year’s?

Even as Rodkin and the CEOs of Bumble Bee, Dole and Butterball testified, ConAgra’s Slim Jim meat and cheese sticks, Pemmican beef jerky, Hunt’s spaghetti sauce with meat flavor, Banquet Mac & Cheese and Manwich with beef refrigerated tubs were joining the Do Not Eat Hallmark/Westland recalled meat list.

Products from General Mills and Nestle were also indicted.

A 50 page PDF on the California Department of Public Health web site gives the names, addresses and even phone numbers of restaurants and food services that bought Hallmark/Westland meat, reversing public outrage over shield laws which protected the identities of 11 California restaurants that served mad cow meat in late 2003.

In Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearings last week, chairman Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) wanted to know why, with five inspectors assigned to the Hallmark slaughterhouse, the videotaped abuse had to be uncovered by a charity.

“Why don’t you have a system that uncovers this inhumane treatment of animals?”

Senator Kohl asked Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer who was making his first appearance on Capitol Hill since assuming the post days before the scandal broke.

Records show the slaughterhouse had a pockmarked history.

In 2005 the USDA cited Hallmark for, “Too much electric prodding causing animals to get more excited while being driven towards [the kill] box.” And complaints from humane officials were filed as early as 1996 charging cows that couldn’t walk were being prodded “repeatedly in the face” and other cows were allowed to trample over them.

The subcommittee hearings were attended by Schafer, three department undersecretaries, Patrick Boyle, President & CEO of the American Meat Institute Foundation and Wayne Pacelle, President & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States whose undercover video lead to the recall.

Conspicuously absent were representatives from the dairy industry even though the infirm cows in the video–“spent and barely able to stand due to calcium depletion from being milked intensively” says the Chicago Tribune–are a dairy phenomenon.

In fact the dairy industry’s reduction of cows into metabolically collapsed downers in a few short years–facilitated by its continued use of Monsanto’s rBST–is even condemned by the beef industry.

“We just don’t see that out here in beef country,” says Steve Hilker whose Cimarron, KS-based company has hauled cattle for 30 years. “Around here, a ‘downer’ cow in the feed yard is one that’s got a leg issue–that’s had something happen to them, like stepping on a rock or in a crack, something like that.”

“What was captured on video is deplorable to the live cattle industry,” agreed Cattle Producers of Washington President Ted Wishon, pointing out the video showed dairy cattle.

Schafer and the Meat Institute dispute that downer cows are casualties of a ruthless dairy industry. Many are just fine when they arrive at the slaughterhouse, they say, but somehow get “injured” after inspection. It would be “unfair to owners” to ban them from slaughter.

But Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said at the hearings USDA rules that allow slaughterhouse officials to call a veterinarian back if a cow falls down after passing inspection so it can still be slaughtered are “the fox guarding the hen house.”

Especially because Rafael Sanchez Herrera, 34, of Chino, one of two Hallmark workers charged in the abuse, says workers were taught the videotaped techniques to get downed cows to stand up and pass inspection by their supervisors.

Even the press sees problems with the “previously healthy downer” loophole.

“You’re saying that those [downers] never would have passed inspection anyway,” Miriam Falco of CNN Medical News said to Ken Peterson, assistant administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, at a press briefing. “But we see video of them going into the facility. So at what point does your inspection pick up on this?”

Of course there’s more denial in the USDA than the cause of downers.

Try to explain why the meat won’t be retested, why no one has gotten sick yet or even disposal methods without mentioning mad cow.

Unlike E.coli, mad cow prions can’t be detected in meat–only in brains of infected animals–killed by bleach, formaldehyde, radiation, heat, alcohol or burial, and they take years to make someone sick.

Still, as the nation has serious doubts about meat safety, it’s clear to Secretary Schafer, the American Meat Institute Foundation and the New York Farm Bureau who is to blame for the scandal: The Humane Society for not calling the attention of USDA inspectors to the job they weren’t doing.

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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