Don’t Get Me Started, Regulars and Shorts

Don’t Get Me Started: Mad cow denial in the meat industry and on Capitol Hill

By John deJong

by John deJong What is most appalling about the recent recall of 143 million pounds of beef is the almost random nature of the video that touched off the recall.

One would hope that the Westland/ Hallmark Meat Company of Chino, California, is one of the more egregious offenders when it comes to “keeping yields high,” but revelations about the inadequacies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection program make me wonder—how many other slaughter houses across the country could be featured on YouTube?

In 2004, the USDA came out with a “no downer” rule that spooked the meat processing industry. The big question at USDA-hosted seminars that year: What is considered a “downer” cow? Is it a cow that has to be electrically prodded onto its feet and into the killing room? Is it a cow that has to be fork-lifted into the killing room? Obviously the answer for Westland/Hallmark was anything that kept profits up. Did forklift operators take the carcass directly to the disassembly line

 if a cow died on its way to the killing room?

In an unfortunate echo of the blame-shifting in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the workers caught on the video have already been fired and charged with animal cruelty. Their bosses, on the other hand, will be forced to spend a couple of hours in front of Congressional committees pleading plausible deniability—ably backed up by lawyers from the Beef Council and People for the Unethical Treatment of Animals, PUTA.

Doing the math

In 2004, the industry slaughtered 35 million cows, of which an estimated 0.0005% were downer cows, some 195,000 that year. How many more were prodded and forklifted through while the federal inspectors weren’t watching?

The economics of the cattle industry are brutal. So brutal that sellers go to extreme measures to insure their herd isn’t spooked on the way to the scales, for fear that their profit margin will end up as so much cow shit on the auction house floor. On the hoof cattle go for $80-$90 apiece. (I don’t know what they go for on their side.) So every downer cow who makes the cut, so to speak, is another 90 bucks for the cattleman.

No small part of the tragedy is the amount of that beef which went to school children (about a third). It’s one thing to infect old folks with mad cow disease, which takes a couple of decades to develop (depending on many triple-patty-gob-stoppers you ate, estimates are now four to 20 years) and another to expose school children, who have decades of meat consumption ahead of them. By the time any of them come down with the human variant of mad cow disease, the statute of limitations will have tolled and the owners of Westland/ Hallmark will be comfortably retired in their Chino Heights McMansions.

Speaking of the long incubation period of mad cow disease, the award for the most disingenuous remark about the recall must go to the industry spokesman who pointed out there were no reports of anyone getting sick after eating the condemned beef, unlike the recent recalls for E. coli contamination. The runner-up quip has to be the remark by a USDA spokesman who said that since most of the recalled beef had probably already been consumed, it posed no health hazard to the public; conveniently omitting any mention of the fact that, for the same reason, the financial hazard to Westland/Hallmark has been minimized. The meat was already eaten, so they won’t have to buy it back.

Critics have faulted the USDA for both policing and promoting the meat industry, a fox guarding the hen house situation. But it’s worse than that. The USDA has instituted a policy of “self-reporting” where the meat industry sets its own guidelines, reports its own abuses of those guidelines and slaps itself on the hand when it catches itself doing anything it considers wrong. The only grit in the gears is the infrequent and predictable inspections by understaffed federal inspectors.

Have slaughter houses added training to catch the warning signs of hidden cameras, in additon to training workers not to process downer cows while federal inspectors are watching?

So, bon apetit, pardner. Head on down to your favorite steakhouse and order the Inflamed Mignon, a 32 oz. Slaughter House steak, or maybe the Westland/Hallmark special, the Prodded-to-Standing Ribs.

Personal note: I’ll never forget driving past the slaughterhouse just off I-15, south of 126th South, on my way to a vacation in southern Utah and seeing a (I presume) dead cow hoisted by a hind leg being drug across the pen. Needless to say I didn’t buy beef sausage when I got supplies at City Market in Moab.

Speaking of sausage….

The sausage factory on the hill has been doing that doodoo it does so well for the last month and a half. It’s too bad someone can’t get a hidden camera into the Republican caucus meetings. My guess is the video would be even more disgusting than the Westland /Hallmark video.

The closed Republican caucuses are where all the dirty work on the hill happens. They are so efficient that most committee hearings serve only to remind the slower legislators whether a bill was given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in the caucus. A committee hearing room may be packed with adherents or opponents of a bill, yet the Republican leadership will deign to listen to only a handful of people who wish to speak on the bill, then summarily call for a vote. Occasionally a Republican will vote against a bill (if there are enough votes so that his vote doesn’t make a difference) to give himself cover with the voters in his district in the next election. (I would say “his constituency” but most Republicans are far more beholden to the coffers of the State Republican party and corporate campaign donors than they are to the voters in their district.)

Party caucuses enjoy this shroud of secrecy because they ostensibly exist only to conduct “party business”, but it is in the caucuses where the real work of the legislature happens. The fate of nearly every bill is decided in the closed door caucus. In a way, ensuring a Republican monopoly of the legislative process is Republican party business. So why not shut off the entire process and just release a list of passed bills at the end of the session? The Governor can veto any bill he likes, but the party lock step imposed in the caucus will insure a veto proof majority in both houses.

Since there is no chance of getting a video camera into the Republican caucuses we can only imagine who has the cattle prod and who is operating the fork lift to get the downer cows through the sausage factory.

So, bon apetit, pardner. Would you like your democracy with a shroud of secrecy, or do you just want to turn a blind eye?  u

John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST and reformed legislative gadfly.

This article was originally published on March 7, 2008.