Shouldn't we expect more from our food suppliers?

The largest beef recall in U.S. history took place in February. Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., based in Chino, Calif., "voluntarily" recalled approximately 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef products declared unfit for human consumption by the Food Safety Inspection Service.

The recall includes beef products from the Hallmark/Weston facility going back to February 2006, meaning most of it has already been eaten. It was big news for about a week, then it dropped off the public and media radar. It's a story with an interesting background ... food for thought, excuse the pun.

The recall occurred after a video of pre-slaughter practices in the Hallmark/Westland facility was released by the Humane Society. In this video, cows (and these are cows - milk cows - that are unable, for whatever reason, to produce milk any longer) are shown being pushed, dragged, and lifted by forklifts after going down. Following the release of the video, FSIS found that the company was noncompliant with the following regulation: If an animal becomes non-ambulatory before or at the time of being presented for slaughter, plant personnel are required to summon a public health veterinarian to re-evaluate the animal. Beef from non-ambulatory cattle is considered by the FSIS as "unfit for human consumption." The prohibition of downer cattle from entering the food supply is one measure the federal government has in place to protect the food supply from BSE ("mad cow" disease). When the United States Department of Agriculture announced the recall, they stated that they had not conducted complete and proper inspections dating back to February 2006.

Beef included in the recall was not available for direct purchase by consumers. Instead, it was sent to wholesale distributors nationwide in bulk packages including the National School Lunch Program. Interestingly, Hallmark/Westland, the second largest supplier for the school lunch program, was named "Supplier of the Year" for both 2004 and 2005 by the National School Lunch Program. Fast food chains who purchased beef from Westland/ Hallmark include California-based Jack In the Box and In and Out Burger. Reportedly, McDonald's and Burger King restaurants have not purchased products from Westland/Hallmark.

Responses from regulators and management are telling. Here's what the USDA said: "We do not know how much of this product is out there at this time. We do not feel this product presents a health risk of any significance," said Dick Raymond, the undersecretary of agriculture for food safety. "But the product was produced in noncompliance with our regulations, so therefore we do have to take this action." Given this statement, one could easily conclude that noncompliance with USDA regulations is inconsequential, especially taking into consideration his implication of virtually no health risk from the firm's actions.

Mr. Raymond also stated that "the average age of the cattle involved is 5 to 7 years, meaning most of them were probably born long after a 1997 ban on a type of cattle feed suspected to cause the disease (BSE)." Average age means that some cows are younger and some are older than the 5 to 7 year range given. "Most" were born after the 1997 ban - that does not mean all. How many at-risk cows were processed? Have any violations of the 1997 ban occurred? Two U.S. cows were discovered to have BSE in 2003, one in Washington state and another in Texas. A third case was found in March of 2006.

Of course the incidence of BSE is extremely rare, but a few cases in Britain caused widespread cattle slaughter to eliminate the disease. Canada's efforts to keep BSE from spreading are even stronger than America's. USDA officials noted that the brains and spinal cords from the animals - the area most likely to harbor the disease - would not have entered the human food chain. Does this mean that these so-called "SRMs" - specified risk materials - enter the non-human food chain? Very likely, since there is no ban on SRMs in animal feeds, pet foods and fertilizer. How do animals contract BSE? By consuming products containing brains and spinal cords from diseased animals.

Incidentally, no one appeared to be terribly concerned about the amount of fecal material that covered the hides of these cows after being pushed and rolled over the ground. Fecal material containing pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter is introduced into the meat when the animals are processed.

In a statement issued Feb. 3, Westland Meat President Steve Mendell said that the company was cooperating with the USDA and that the practices depicted in the Humane Society video are "a serious breach of our company's policies and training. 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." This "serious breach" continued for over two years under the noses of company management and FSIS inspectors. This is considered "swift action"? Employees wanting to keep their jobs do as instructed by their supervisors. Supervisors wanting to keep their jobs do as instructed by management. It is these employees, not management, who were charged with animal cruelty.

Finally, a couple of questions. Shouldn't the food served in school cafeterias be subject to the highest possible food safety standards? Should the U.S. taxpayers be paying for food that may endanger their children? Why did we hear so little about the largest beef recall in U.S. history? Could it be we have simply come to expect this from our food suppliers and regulatory agencies?

• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Hazel Bowen lives in Washoe Valley and taught nutrition at UNR from 1996-2007. She is presently teaching an online nutrition class through UNR Extended Studies Program.


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