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Kerry Trueman

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No Cow Left Behind

Posted: 02/18/08 09:34 AM ET

I'm confused. Is today Presidents' Day, or Groundhog Day? The news cycle's stuck in a wretched rut: the aftermath of yet another school shooting; another suicide bombing in Afghanistan; another story about how the FDA left a dangerous drug on the market while thousands died needlessly; oh, and yet another beef recall.

But this recall -- 143 million pounds of beef from a California meat-packing plant -- sets a new record. The previous record was a mere 35 million pounds, back in 1999.

Will the meat from the Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino make you sick? Depends on what the meaning of "sick" is. If, by "sick", you mean, will it give you mad cow disease, or E. coli, or salmonella? There's only a "remote possibility," according to Dick Raymond, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety.

If, however, by "sick," you mean nauseated by the gut-wrenching undercover video depicting Westland employees abusing "downer" cows -- i.e. those too ill or injured to stand ( and perhaps not fit to eat) -- well, then, the answer is definitely yes. The footage, brought to you courtesy of the Humane Society, shows workers "kicking cows, jabbing them near their eyes, ramming them with a forklift and shooting high-intensity water up their noses in an effort to force them to their feet for slaughter," as CNN reports.

Westland Meat's president, Steve Mendell, was naturally shocked, shocked, at the evidence of bovine water boarding and other agribiz atrocities documented by the Humane Society. When confronted about the video by the Washington Post, Mendell "expressed disbelief that employees used stun guns to get sick or injured animals on their feet for inspection:"

"That's impossible," he said, adding that "electrical prods are not allowed on the property."

Asked whether his employees use fork lifts to get moribund animals off the ground, he said: "I can't imagine that."

Asked whether water was sprayed up animals' noses to get them to stand up, he said: "That's absolutely not true."

"We have a massive humane treatment program here that we follow to the nth degree, so this doesn't even sound possible," Mendell said. "I don't stand out there all day, but to me it would be next to impossible."

Well, sure, as the head of a meat-packing plant, Mendell is too busy generating his own brand of bullshit to wade into the fecal matter coating the downer cows his company's been slaughtering and shipping off to school lunches and programs for the needy (guess they won't be getting another one of those Supplier of the Year awards for the National School Lunch Program like the one the USDA gave Westland for the 2004-2005 school year.)

With the Humane Society's video going viral faster than E. coli in a feedlot, Mendell fired the two employees identified in the video, describing their behavior as "a serious breach of our company's policies and training." California prosecutors have since filed animal cruelty charges against the two former employees, who insist, of course, that they were only following orders.

The individual who shot the footage, who's remaining anonymous in the hopes of infiltrating other slaughterhouses, told the Washington Post, "These were not rogue employees secretly doing these things...Every day, I would see downed cattle too sick or injured to stand or walk arriving at the slaughterhouse. Workers would do anything to get the cows to stand on their feet."

Although the methods exposed by the video are all forbidden by both California law and the USDA, the USDA actually lacks the authority to recall meat; all it can do is ask nicely. Westland has voluntarily agreed to pull all its raw and frozen beef products going back to February 1st, 2006, but most of that potentially downer cow-tainted meat has presumably already been downed.

USDA inspectors were at the Westland plant twice a day and saw nothing amiss, which is to say that these abuses simply constitute business as usual in America's abattoirs. But is this kind of institutionalized cruelty acceptable in our culture? Our pal Bonnie Powell over at the Ethicurean doesn't think so:

As the massive outcry in response to the Humane Society's expose of a California beef-processing plant shows, Americans are extremely sensitive to the mistreatment of animals -- even those we intend to eat. It would be nice if we showed we cared even half as much about the human-rights abuses that are epidemic in our cheap-food system.

At least the animals have got the Humane Society working on their behalf to shame the USDA into action; if only the workers who are getting chewed up and spit out by the factory farms had an equally effective, well-funded watchdog looking out for them.

Powell cites a disturbing six-part expose that ran last week in the Charlotte Observer about a North Carolina poultry processor whose workers are subjected to awful conditions and routinely denied medical care. Many of the workers are here illegally and therefore afraid to speak up, making them easy to exploit. Serious injuries go unreported to OSHA, which is supposed to ensure worker safety but, according to the Observer, "is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer."

The Observer's series followed a strange and scary story in the New York Times about a mystery malady afflicting a dozen workers at a Minnesota pork processing plant. The workers, who suffered a serious neurological disorder, all had one thing in common; part of their job entailed harvesting pig brains, which get shipped to China and Korea, by blasting compressed air into the pigs' skulls, which, according to the Times, turned "the brain into a slurry that squirted out through the same hole in the skull, often spraying brain tissue around and splattering the hose operator in the process."

Powell sums it up best:

The meat industry in this country is broken from start to finish. We take ruminants and feed them grain their stomachs weren't designed to eat, treating them like garbage disposals for our industrial leftovers; implant steroids so they'll grow faster; feed them antibiotics so they can survive the poor diets and crowded feedlot conditions; then ship them to slaughterhouses where they are killed and processed at speeds that practically beg for bacterial contamination and worker injuries.

Industrial livestock production relies on the systemic abuse of cows, pigs, chickens, and the workers who process them in order to bring us cheap meat. When did Americans develop such a taste for torture, anyway? I'm tired of having to read and write about this stuff; aren't you sick of eating it?

 

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