On August 19, 2012, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered its inspection staff at Central Valley Meat (CVM) to go home. Because the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 requires inspection by USDA to be continuous during slaughter of cattle, this USDA action essentially shuttered the plant for the time being.
This action at CVM has been well documented at Food Safety News and many other electronic Ag and Meat journals. The reporting has been fair and complete, but the discussions that have followed have been, at times, so inaccurate and unfair that I have felt the need to respond in some detail.
I was at the USDA on February 1, 2008, when a similar action was taken at Hallmark/Westland meats. There are similarities and there are differences, but the role of the USDA was the same at both plants.
First, the similarities:
Undercover agents working at slaughter plants as undercover agents for the Humane Society of the United States (Hallmark/Westland) and Compassion Over Killing (CVM) used hidden cameras to film egregious inhumane handling of cows.
Both animal rights groups have an agenda that includes preventing the killing of animals for human consumption. This agenda can be moved forward with disgustingly shocking videos, and by driving the cost of meat up by necessitating changes in the slaughter and fabricating processes.
Both plants slaughtered a very large number of old, culled dairy cows and sold beef to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
If you want to get the public’s attention using video, you want to go to a facility that slaughters old dairy cows and then sells the meat to the NSLP. As opposed to 20-30 month old steers that have been content to eat grain in a feedlot, these cows are often 10-12 years of age, and are often not in good enough shape to handle a ride of even a few miles in hot weather.
They sometimes are sick, they always are old, and they often lay down to rest and refuse to get up. And here lies the opportunity for video if the plant is not impeccable in its handling of these non-ambulatory or “downer” animals.
But on with the similarities:
Each plant had an inspection work force felt to be adequate to assure our meat was safe. That work force would include on-line inspectors whose only opportunity to observe inhumane handling would be coming to and going from work plus break time, time which is officially their own, not the plant’s or the USDA’s.
There might be one or two off-line inspectors with multiple responsibilities.
There would also be a Public Health Veterinarian on duty. S/He is responsible in most plants to observe animals in motion and at rest to screen for Central Nervous System disorders such as BSE and other chronic disease manifestations.
But this individual is also usually responsible for carcass by carcass inspection after the hide has been pulled off. At Hallmark, this individual was condemning about 20 carcasses per day to protect you and me.
You see, contrary to so many discussants’ uninformed opinions, this person cannot be in two places at once.
I compare the PHV to a State Trooper.
It is my job to obey the speed limit, it is the trooper’s job to be a presence at times that encourages me to not speed, not knowing when he will pop up.
It is the plant’s job to obey the Humane handling Act, and it is the PHV’s job to occasionally stroll through the pens to confirm the Act is being complied with.
If the discussants calling for USDA employee’s heads, and even the Secretary’s job, want 24/7 FSIS coverage, then go get the funding for it and watch our taxes go up.
There was one major difference, so far, between CVM and Hallmark.
In 2008, if a cow had passed antemortem inspection by the PHV, in motion and at rest, then decided to lie down and not get up, the plant could ask the PHV to come out to the pen and examine the animal.
If a cause for the non-ambulatory condition could be determined, such as a fractured leg or ruptured tendon, the animal could be euthanized on the spot and then taken to the knock box.
In the Hallmark incident, there was irrefutable evidence that non-ambulatory cattle entered the food supply without follow up inspection by the PHV. Investigations confirmed this had been going on for over one year. Not often, but on occasion.
This fact makes the meat “unfit” for consumption because rules were not followed and proper inspection not completed.
We were criticized, but why have rules like the “downer rule” if they are not a part of protection of the food supply?
The HSUS won on this count, because the USDA responded the next year by completely banning all downers and non-ambulatory cattle from getting into the food chain. Throwing away perfectly good meat is a waste, and drives up the cost of our beef.
One slaughter plant out of 800 tried to cheat the system, and an entire industry was taken to task.
The difference, so far, at CVM, is that although the video is despicable, there is no evidence these mistreated animals ever got into the facility and the food chain.
It is being said by bashers of the federal government that the USDA overreacted at CVM. There is a law, passed by Congress and signed by the President of the United States that says inhumane handling will not be tolerated and FSIS is to suspend inspection when it is seen.
USDA/FSIS was simply following the law. You don’t like it, change the law but do not drag these federal employees over the coals for doing what they had to do.
If any reader is interested, the transcript of my testimony in front of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, regarding Hallmark/Westland and the Q and A that followed can be seen online.
In closing, I expect Terry to add his two cents worth and I will point out that the risk of variant CJD from eating US beef is as close to zero as we can make it. There are many interlocking steps to keep us safe, including:
1. The ruminant to ruminant feed ban in effect for over a decade to protect our herd.
2. The removal of Specified Risk Materials in the slaughter facilities under the continuous and watchful eyes of FSIS Inspectors to protect human health.
3. The observation by the PHVs of animals in motion.
4. No downers or non-ambulatory cattle allowed in the food chain, and
5. The USDA’s ongoing surveillance of animals at high risk for BSE, assuring us that the exposure risk is almost nil.
Editor’s Note: –Dr. Raymond Responds To Some of the Comments Below–
Wowser, only a blog on raw milk could stir up more vitriol and I was only stating the facts behind USDA”s action.
Shelly, if you go to the COK web sight, the second sentence you will read is this:
“COK focuses on cruelty to animals in agriculture and promotes vegetarian eating as a way to build a kinder world, both for humans and nonhumans.”
So please explain your first response by saying I had lost all creditibility by calling a spade a spade?
And just so you know, the USDA will not be fining Central Valley because the law prohibits them from doing so. I know, because ever
y year we went to the Appropriations Committee with our budget and requested authority to fine plants for certain circumstances and every year we were denied. Again, just trying to point out the facts so people can make informed decisions and comments.
As for the comment that USDA is supposed to promote Ag, and therefore this action should get people fired? As I tried to explain, they just followed the law. And besides promoting Ag, they promote and protect animal, plant and human health, run the US Forest Service, direct food stamps and school lunches to name a few other items of business for the USDA.
Shelly, where do I “imply” the video was ‘staged”? I called is disgusting and despicable, but I meant the footage, not the technique.
I have no problems with vegans, everyone should have a choice. What I have a problem with is when others try to impose their beliefs on me by driving up the cost of meat. Oh, and yes, perfectly good meat is destroyed because the Obama Administration banned all non-ambulatory cattle, not just old culled dairy cows. 20 month old, grain fed steers break legs and rupture tendons on ice and slippery surfaces. We use to be able to eat them, now they are taken to rendering and that, my friends, is a waste and drives up costs at the grocery stores.
The animal rights activists are winning, and we are helping them with inhumane practices.
BTW, USDA shuttered 12 plants in 1997, the year before Hallmark, for inhumane handling observed by FSIS employees. They just didn’t send the videos to the Washington Post and NY Times.
Image: Watering cattle and providing shelter are two important ways to help keep them cooler and less stressed during heat waves.
Photo by Keith Weller, USDA, ARS, Photo Library.© Food Safety News