I am feeling woozy and wobbly on my feet. The case of downer cows entering the US food chain is an indictment against industrial livestock production. Canada needs to safeguard consumers, farmers and the environment from this and other criminal and dangerous food practices, including genetic engineering, and cloned meat. Instead, the integration of Canadian and American agriculture under NAFTA and the Security and Prosperity Partnership leaves us with an ailing regulatory system that feeds us cows that are too sick to stand.
In British Columbia, small farms are under threat because new meat inspection regulations favour large scale slaughterhouses. I can guarantee that you will never see scenes like these on small organic meat farms.
The following video, courtesy the Humane Society contains graphic and extremely disturbing images.
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: March 13, 2008
WASHINGTON — The president of a slaughterhouse at the heart of the largest-ever meat recall denied under oath on Wednesday, but then grudgingly admitted, that his company had introduced sick cows into the hamburger supply.
He then tried to minimize the significance.
The executive, Steve Mendell, of Hallmark/Westland Meat Company of Chino, Calif., said, “I was shocked. I was horrified. I was sickened,” by video that showed employees kicking or using electric prods on “downer” cattle that were too sick to walk, jabbing one in the eye with a baton and using forklifts to push animals around.
The video was taken by an undercover agent from the Humane Society of the United States. One tape showed a worker using a garden hose to try to squirt water up the nose of a downed cow, a technique that Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who conducted the hearing, referred to as waterboarding.
Appearing at a hearing of the Oversight and Investigations Committee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Mendell, who appeared only after being subpoenaed, promised that despite his ignorance of conditions at the plant, sick animals were not slaughtered for food so no safety issue existed.
But Mr. Mendell retracted that when the subcommittee staff showed a second video at which a “downer” cow was shocked and abused by workers trying to move it to the “kill box,” and then finally shot with a bolt gun and dragged by a chain to the processing area.
Mr. Mendell said he had asked for a copy of the second video but had been refused. The president of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle, said however, that the video had been on the group’s Web site since Feb. 19.
The undercover investigator did not appear but Mr. Mendell found a way to make his identity public, seeking to contradict the investigator’s accusation that when he was hired at the plant, he had never received the required training in humane handling. Mr. Mendell volunteered that he had with him a form signed by the undercover agent acknowledging such training. (Whether the training actually occurred was not established.)
Of the 143 million pounds of beef that were recalled, about 50 million pounds went to school lunch programs or federal programs for the poor or elderly, Mr. Stupak said. But the recall covered all the meat produced for two years, Mr. Mendell said, so most of it had already been eaten.
The biggest threat from “downer” cattle is mad cow disease. The chairman of the full committee, Representative John Dingell, also of Michigan, said the incubation period for the human form could be 20 years.
The “downer” animal could still be legally slaughtered if a government veterinarian has determined the cow was fit for human consumption, but Mr. Mendell acknowledged that no veterinarian was visible on the tape. After his testimony, his lawyer Asa Hutchinson, a former member of Congress from Arkansas and former under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said that Mr. Mendell still did not have all the facts about the events shown in the videotapes. Mr. Mendell made the point that parts of the animal most likely to carry the defective protein that causes mad cow were routinely removed.
“I think there is less than a minute chance of that product being contaminated,” he said. He also produced audits from outside companies showing that the plant complied with rules on humane treatment of animals, evidence that some committee members said shook their confidence that Mr. Mendell understood the operations of his own company.
The committee is considering several remedies, including food irradiation. That would reduce the risk of contamination by e. coli, the bacterium that killed three children in a 1993 outbreak linked to the Jack in the Box restaurant chain. (Westland/Hallmark was one of the slaughterhouses closed down in that outbreak.) But it would not affect the mad cow risk.
Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, has proposed improving the ability to track meat back to the slaughterhouse and cow, and giving the agriculture department authority to issue recalls. That could make it easier, she said, to catch tainted meat before it was consumed, “or preferably, to deter conduct like this.”