It’s time to kill the USDA, before it kills us
Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2008
We haven’t talked yet about last week’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
As the BBC and others reported at the time, “It comes from a company in California, which officials said allowed meat from cattle unable to stand at the time of slaughter to enter the food chain.”
Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the company, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., will almost certainly shut down for good.
The meatpacker voluntarily suspended operations in early February, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating how it treated animals.
What’s of particular interest, from a journalistic point of view, is the step before that – how the USDA came to investigate in the first place.
The USDA investigation began after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing workers at the Chino slaughterhouse trying to make sick or injured cows stand up with electrical-shock devices, fork lifts and high-pressure water hoses. State and federal animal-cruelty laws prohibit such activities.
Federal laws also prohibit the sale and distribution of so-called downer cattle because of the high risk of mad-cow disease. That risk isn’t taken seriously by consumers, in large part because they rely on the government to take it seriously. And the USDA doesn’t do the job its counterparts do in other countries, largely because it’s insufficiently independent of the industry it’s supposed to regulate.
In the days after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published, the need for government oversight must have seemed obvious, for the safety of the meat supply and of the meatpackers, if not for the short-lived well-being of the animals themselves. Unfortunately, if you read any of that book’s latter-day latter-day counterparts, like Fast Food Nation or Diet For a New America, it’s clear that, 102 years later, little if any progress has been made.
According to KCBS in Los Angeles and others, one-third of the recalled beef went to schools. (KCBS is also the source for the nice graphic at the top of this post.)
Basically, this was a bottom-of-the-market meatpacker that was probably on shaky ground until it got the federal contract to supply schools. Going back to the Wall Street Journal article for a moment,
Until the plant suspended operations, it was earning a modest profit on annual sales of roughly $100 million, he said. “It’s a low profit-margin business,” he said.
In the last government fiscal year, the Agriculture Department paid Hallmark/Westland about $39 million for ground beef for food nutrition programs, including the school-lunch program. Hallmark/Westland was honored by the department as its Supplier of the Year for the 2004-05 school year. It began supplying meat to the program in 2003 after a rigorous application process with the Agriculture Department, which has authorized about 10 meatpackers nationwide to compete for contracts to supply beef to the program.
Quite the rigorous testing if the Humane Society had to do the USDA’s job for them. It might be fair to paraphrase Groucho and say that we don’t want the schools to be supplied by any company that needs the work.
So maybe it’s time to think about the unintended consequences of having an agency like the USDA exist in the first place. Maybe it’s time to notice that inadequate oversight is in many ways worse than no oversight at all.
In a caveat-emptor world, consumers would be warier of what they let pass through their mouths. (The wording is deliberate there; even the most desparate hooker is more discriminating than the average hamburger consumer.) We would come to rely on brands, either of the distributor, or the restaurant or supermarket itself, and those brands would be on the line with every purchase. The A&Ps and Vons of the world would have to either police their food sources themselves or get out of the game. Perhaps third-party inspectors would emerge to do what the USDA can’t or won’t – rigorously examine the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.
For as long as we’ve known about mad-cow disease, the USDA has done a poor job of protecting consumers from it. Take this summary report from 2006, for example:
(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (Kyodo) U.S. beef inspectors have failed to fully comply with rules banning cattle that are unable to walk to safeguard consumers from mad cow disease, leading at least 29 such animals, including 20 high-risk “downers,” to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report.
The failure angered some activist groups in the United States, blasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for putting consumers at risk of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, despite a no-downer policy maintained for more than two years as a protective firewall against BSE.
The first benefit to ending the USDA’s miserable existence would probably be the inspection of each and every slaughtered animal for mad-cow disease.
Japan tests every animal, and in 2003 halted imports of U.S. beef over mad-cow concerns – $1.7 billion worth in 2003, according to an MSNBC editorial in 2006. That was the year that Japan lifted the ban, only to have to quickly reinstate it.
How pure is the U.S. beef supply, really?
By Phil Lempert
“Today” Food Editor
Tues., Jan. 24, 2006.
[….] Last week, just a month after the Japanese government decided to allow the import of U.S. beef into that country, it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country.
When the two-year-old ban was lifted late last year, it was with the expressed condition that imported U.S. beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.
There are those who argue that the risks just aren’t high enough for us to mimic the paranoid Japanese. Let’s leave aside a multi-billion-dollar export opportunity for American business, and focus on our own health and safety.
Back in 2005, a California State Senator, Jeff Denham, tried to make the case that universal testing was unnecessary.
Since the first cow tested positive in 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tested over 400,000 cows and only one other tested positive. To put this in perspective, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning this year than a neighborhood cow testing positive for Mad Cow disease.
the USDA is testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease – not just a random sampling. Cattle with the highest likelihood of contracting Mad Cow include “downer cows,” that are unable to stand-up, die unexpectedly, or have other signs of illness are the ones that are tested. So those cattle that are healthy are even less likely to have Mad Cow disease.
Obviously, though, the USDA is not testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease, even though they’re supposed to be.
The cattle industry, and guys like Denham, think it’s just too expensive to test every head as it comes to slaughter.
Some will still argue that those odds are not good enough and that every head of cattle should be tested. With more than 95.8 million cows nationwide, it simply is not feasible and not cost effective.
So how expensive would it be?
As it happens, that calculation has been done, for 10 million head per year, the same as Denham argued against. As it happens, that’s not for the Japanese standard of testing every slaughtered animal, but the European standard of testing those over 30 months. An article here quotes a Wall Street Journal article from 2004 in which the calculation is pretty straightforward.
Test kits cost about $10 a pop…. Add in salaries of lab technicians, the cost of grinding up and delivering cattle brain samples for testing, and the tab would be $30 to $50 per animal, industry experts say. The average U.S. cow slaughtered for food yields meat with a retail value of $1,636.
Each year in the U.S., about 35 million cattle are slaughtered. About 10 million of these animals — those over 30 months of age — would be tested for BSE if the U.S. were to adopt European standards, because age is associated with infection.
The grand total to test about 10 million cows in the U.S. would be $300 to $500 million a year. Considering that Americans spend more than $50 billion on beef annually, that would add between six cents and 10 cents per pound.
I’m not too crazy about the 6-10 cents/lb. calculation, since it’s hard to know what the $50 billion figure refers to. It might include $30 entrees at Morton’s Steakhouse. So let’s look instead at the per-head stats: $50 out of $1686. If spread out per-dollar, instead of per-pound, in round numbers the testing adds 3%. If chopped meat is roughly $3.00/lb, we’re still in the same range, another 9 cents.
So there you have it. The cost to be ensure against mad-cow disease is 10 cents/lb. or less. That still doesn’t do anything about the harmful antibiotics in meat, the other chemicals, the hazardous working conditions in slaughterhouses, the inhumane ways that animals are reared and killed, the befouling of the nations drinking water, the erosion of its land, or any of the other problems of factory farming. But it would solve, or start to solve, the mad-cow disease.
Is the industry really afraid of adding 10 cents a pound to meat prices? Hardly. It’s afraid to find out the extent of the mad-cow problem. And it’s afraid of the costs that might be engendered by the changes needed in the way animals are reared and slaughtered, once the extent of the problem is known.
Basically, the meat industry doesn’t want to find out how many animals are infected. And it doesn’t want the extra work of keeping brains and spines out of the hamburgers we eat. And until we get rid of the USDA, or truly empower it with resources and independence, no one is going to make the industry do anything it doesn’t want.