Agriculture secretary’s reassurance rings hollow in light of current industrial beef processing

The Houston Chronicle

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer recently assured Americans that USDA inspectors check “every single” processed American beef carcass. Charitably put, his statement is highly misleading. USDA inspections are perfunctory and fall far short of checks performed by other countries’ meat watchdogs.

The issue arose after South Korea agreed this April to lift most of the restrictions it had placed on U.S. beef imports. That prompted intense protests by South Koreans who say they fear mad cow disease in U.S. beef. They want their government to negotiate a tougher deal or to scrap it.

In Texas last week touring meat processing plants, Secretary Schafer defended domestic meats as safe.

“Every single carcass that’s processed is inspected by a USDA inspector,” Schafer told reporters in San Antonio. “That beef is stamped A-OK, and we want to assure our consumers here in the United States, as well as our consumers … in foreign countries, that we provide a good, clean, safe, abundant food supply here.”

But what exactly is entailed in that inspection? According to the USDA, a government inspector is on site whenever cows are slaughtered and processed. The inspectors are supposed to look at every carcass and determine whether the meat is fit for human consumption. Basically, they have a look and maybe a sniff and a feel. That’s it.

But even that cursory process might be more than consumers are actually getting. The Web abounds with reports, including firsthand accounts and interviews with reputable news organizations, in which USDA inspectors complain that they can’t possibly carry out their job in a meaningful way. There are too few of them to deal with the number of cattle slaughtered each hour in modern meat-processing facilities.

The speed with which cattle are killed, skinned and cut up in these plants makes the job dangerous for the meat processors, to say nothing of inspectors who attempt to get close enough to a side of beef for a poke and a sniff. The high speed of operations sometimes does not allow cows to be properly stunned and bled to death by the time the skinning and cutting begins. That’s not only cruel and inhumane, but also detrimental to food safety. Struggling animals mean meat falling on filthy floors, improper evisceration that spills feces onto meat and greater opportunities for cross-carcass contamination.

The shortage of inspectors also means that a USDA employee cannot always be available to inspect animals before they are killed to ensure that so-called downer cows are not processed. Cattle that cannot walk into the slaughterhouse because they are diseased or injured are more likely to be animals that carry bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

In February, the Humane Society of the United States released videotapes showing meat workers shocking nonambulatory cows, bumping them with forklifts and otherwise abusing them to force them onto their legs long enough to be certified for slaughter.

That’s why many American consumers are voting with their pocketbooks for better meats. They are turning to local farmer’s markets for cruelty-free meats from pasture-raised animals, forgoing meat from industrially raised cows, chickens and pigs that spend their lives packed into filthy cages, fed unhealthy diets and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

Increasingly available at local farmer’s markets is beef from cows that are butchered humanely and in small numbers. As one farmer at Houston’s Bayou City Farmer’s Market put it one recent Saturday morning, “These are cows who have just one bad day.”

Given the alternative practiced in processing plants, it’s no wonder many foreign buyers of U.S. meat products are skeptical. Industrial beef producers employ practices that can be, in a word, repulsive. Until 1997, the United States permitted feeding cattle on beef waste products. It tested very few animals for mad cow disease, even though Europe was testing 10 million of its cattle each year, and the Japanese were testing each one. USDA allowed downer cattle into the food supply, a practice now banned. A 2004 ban on feeding cow’s blood mixed with formula to calves and chicken droppings to cows was never put into practice.

According to The New York Times, the Agriculture Department has been fighting a lawsuit from a Kansas beef producer over the department’s refusal to allow it to test for mad cow disease so that the producer can resume beef shipments to Japan.

None of this is reassuring. Instead of spouting empty rhetoric that U.S. beef is “the safest in the world,” the USDA owes it to consumers to guarantee that meat meant for their dinner plates is processed without unnecessary cruelty and with standards that will produce a clean product that’s safe to eat.

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