A recall of 143 million pounds of beef, one of the largest in U.S. history was made recently, affecting thousands of school districts supplied by a California plant under the National School Lunch program. This stemmed from an undercover investigation of practices at the plant, complete with a disturbing video shot of animals being forced into the chutes, even when they were sick and unable to walk in.
Wrangler isn't an ordinary slaughterhouse worker. He is an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, who got a job at the Westland plant and filmed the abuses with a hidden camera. "There wasn't a formal strategy or anything like that," he says. "You're there just doing the job, and this stuff is just happening all around you." On Jan. 30, the Humane Society broadcast excerpts of the video on its Web site. The next day, the United Stated Department of Agriculture suspended Westland Meat Co. as a supplier to the National School Lunch Program. A few days later, USDA pulled its inspectors from the plant and shut down the plant, pending further investigation. The acts of animal cruelty have led to the arrest of two meatpacking workers by Chino police.
More than two weeks after Wrangler's video caused a sensation online, the USDA issued the largest beef recall in the history of the United States: 143 million pounds of beef products, most of which has already been consumed. About 40 percent of that meat went to the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs. Amazingly, all of the abuses occurred with USDA inspectors on the premises. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said he was "dismayed at the inhumane handling of cattle" at the plant.
The school district my children attend was among the many listed as having received the recalled meat cases, and while the authorities assure us that the recalled meat has been off the lunch menus since the start of February, there are still anecdotes of some kid or the other having stomach problems after eating meat at lunch. Who knows whether the un-recalled products are any safer or more humanely harvested than the recalled batch? We will probably never find out.
A recent book that I read, "Animals in Translation" by Temple Grandin, who is autistic, brought fascinating insights into the behavior of animals, as 'autistic savants' of sorts. She is also an industry expert on the design of humane slaughter house facilities, and is even invoked in a Feb 3, 2008 Westland letter promising more investigation into the cattle abuse:
During 2007, we had 17 third party audits of our operation to confirm that we meet the statutorily mandated humane handling and food safety standards. In addition we have conducted 12 internal audits by our own personnel to ensure that such standards are met. We also, conduct weekly humane handling audits based on standards set forth in the American Meat Institute’s (AMI), Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide 2007 Edition, which was authored by Dr. Temple Grandin, a world renowned expert of humane handling practices. Complete documentation of this activity has been made available to the USDA investigation team currently at our plant.
What problems have been rectified by the recall of meat that have been largely consumed by now? Will it really save unwary consumers from eating problem meat? It seems more like a case of bolting the stables after the horses have run away, similar to the situation with declaring clone-derived meat safe for human consumption after the offspring of clones had already entered the food-chain.