Feces in your burger: The dangerous price of cutting back on meat inspectors

Food safety recalls and animal cruelty are increasing under government abdication of public health duties

By Martha Rosenberg

Published February 28, 2014 12:50PM (EST)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet The USDA is cutting back on federal meat inspectors, allowing slaughterhouses to self-police, and already questions about the program are surfacing. This month, USDA recalled  8.7 million pounds of beef products processed at Rancho Feeding Corp. which included Nestle's Philly Steak and Cheese and Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese Hot Pockets, Walmart Fatburgers, Kroger Ground Beef Mini Sliders and other well-known brands.

The reason for the gigantic recall, says USDA, is that the slaughterhouse  "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." The multi-state recall, applying to all meat produced over a year at the facility, caused Rancho Feeding Corp. to  close.

The USDA cost-cutting, self-regulation program, called HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project) will eliminate  800 federal meat inspectors and is already in operation at about 25 chicken and turkey plants. It likely played a role in the Rancho Feeding Corp. recall said Stan Painter, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents 6,000 inspectors nationwide. “In many places, managers and veterinarians are being asked to help with inspections,” because of a shortage of federal inspectors, he said.

Six years ago, Painter spoke out about cutbacks in federal inspection when undercover video of "downer" cows moved with electric prods, forklifts and water hoses at the Chino, Ca-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. slaughterhouse surfaced.   Painter warned that the government's cost-driven move toward self-regulation of private slaughterhouses amounted to the fox "guarding its own henhouse." The meat from the cows, which was supplying the National School Lunch Program, was recalled because of the high likelihood of "downer cows" carry Mad Cow disease. It became the largest meat recall in US history.

Westland/Hallmark had been cited by the USDA in 2005 for “too much electric prodding causing animals to get more excited while being driven towards [the kill] box," suggesting it was receiving sick and weak cows. But despite the USDA's "7,800 pairs of eyes scrutinizing 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation… in the end, it took an undercover operation by an animal rights group to reveal" the abuse said the  Los Angeles Times in a scathing 2008 editorial.  Even before the recent meat inspector cutbacks, the government was allowing  sick and diseased cattle to be processed for the US dinner table until the Humane Society of the United States intervened. Westland/Hallmark  ceased operations soon after.

One ailment in cows that could slip through as the number of federal meat inspectors declines is eye cancer, says Bill Niman, a rancher who did business for 40 years with Rancho Feeding Corp. "A farmer sends a cow in with cancer, and he knows it has cancer-eye—it's a growth on the eye, this is not a microbial situation," he told the  Village Voice. "The inspectors, they know it has cancer-eye. So the farmer shouldn't have sent it, and the inspector should have caught it."

Both the shuttered Rancho Feeding Corp. and Westland/Hallmark were slaughterhouses where farmers could send and often dump their dairy cows who could no longer walk. "The cattle are going to go down in the truck," Rod Bolcao, owner of Chino Livestock Market told the  Inland Valley Daily Bulletin who was familiar with Westland/Hallmark. They "aren't going to be strong enough to make the ride" and Westland/Hallmark was there "to pick them up," he said. Without a slaughterhouse like Westland/Hallmark for cull cattle, dairymen lose the $400 they would make on the carcass and instead have to pay "money to euthanize them and haul them out," as much as $70 to $150, he lamented.
Nowhere did Bolcao address the ethics of working a dairy cow until the difference between disposing of her and selling her to be slaughtered for meat is $250.

Rancho Feeding Corp., the only slaughterhouse in the Bay Area, was also one of the few facilities in its area to slaughter cull dairy cows, said Niman. Dairy cattle are older and sicker, and once their milking days are over they are processed into low-grade meat instead of being retired.
Bolcao and Niman are not the only ag voices recounting the cavalier disposal of cull dairy cows which owners try to get on the truck to the slaughterhouse even if the cows will never walk off on their own steam.  A 2010 report from the  USDA's Inspector General identified four operations that dumped 211 cows unfit for human food, calling the operators "individuals who have a history of picking up dairy cows with drugs in their system and dropping them off at the plant."

Two of the four Mad Cows that have been found in the US since 2003 were also downers, unable to walk. Cow number two, discovered in late 2004, was purchased at a livestock sale by an "order buyer" who sent her to the slaughterhouse four days later, according to a  government report. When the truck arrived at H&B Packing in Waco, according to the  Star-Telegram, she was already dead and so she was transported instead to Champion Pet Food, across town. Even though there were reports that the cow was unable to walk at the livestock where she was nonetheless sold for meat, the farmer who owned her told government investigators that “the cow had always been excitable and had fallen while she was being loaded to go to the market, but that this was not unusual behavior for her.” Right.

Cow number three, discovered in March, 2006, was  also a downer who “had at her side a 2- to 3-week old red Charolais cross female calf” at the time of her death, according to the USDA report. In both cases, the government protected the identities of the ranches and allowed them to resume operations in a month--though the cause of the Mad Cow disease was never found. With the first US mad cow, found in late 2003,  officials refused to tell the public which restaurants and outlets may have served meat containing the cow.

Instances of cruelty are not the only expected result of the government's cost-cutting capitulation to private industry by reducing and eliminating inspection. Federal meat inspectors are also responsible for a plant’s compliance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Poultry Products Inspection Act and Egg Products Inspection Act. Yet since Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) was implemented in 2000 (a self-policing measure that was the precursor to HIMP) it is increasingly hard to do their jobs.
“My plant in Pennsylvania processed 1,800 cows a day, 220 per hour,” federal meat inspector Lester Friedlander told the press in 2004.  Stopping the line cost about $5,000 a minute, so veterinarians are pressured “to look the other way” when violations happen.

Dean Wyatt, a Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) supervisory public health veterinarian, reiterated Friedlander's charges in  2010 congressional hearings. Federal meat inspectors are unable to do their job on either end, he testified, because FSIS district offices often side with plant management over inspectors, reducing them to powerless figureheads who are sometimes openly laughed at by plant workers.
Stan Painter of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals repeated the charges in additional congressional testimony. "Sometimes, even if we write noncompliance reports, some of the larger companies use their political muscle to get those overturned at the agency level or by going to the congressional delegation to get this inspection staff to back off," he said.
Soon after HACCP was implemented in 2000,  62 percent of meat inspectors in a survey admitted that they had  allowed feces, vomit and metal shards in food on a daily or weekly basis, which had not happened before HACCP. Almost 20 percent of inspectors said they’d been told not to document violations. Eighty percent of 451 inspectors said that HACCP interfered with their ability to enforce the law and the public’s right to know about food safety. (No wonder HACCP has been dubbed “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.”)

As food safety recalls increase under government abdication of its public health duties, the risk of Mad Cow disease, eye cancer and grotesque levels of cruelty to animals will only increase. February's recall of top brands let Nestle's Hot Pockets shows that industry will put profits ahead of self-policing when it can. By eliminating federal inspectors to save money, the USDA is harming food consumers, animals and the public trust.

Martha Rosenberg

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets

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