Now that people realize their children have been eating beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company through the National School Lunch, Program Ed Schafer, the new Agriculture Secretary, has the perfect storm on his hands.
School districts in 50 states have put a hold on the meat after workers at Hallmark/Westland, a beef supplier to USDA in California, were videotaped tormenting crippled cows www.hsus.org presumably to get around "downer" rules that say cows must walk from one pen to the next and back to prove they are not too sick to slaughter.
USDA may order the meat throw out.
Schafer can't blame the conditions leading to the impounded meat--which is considered dangerous because downers can carry mad cow disease--on iffy overseas regulation. The videotaped mistreatment "occurred under the noses of eight on-site USDA inspectors," says the Los Angeles Times.
And, according to one activist it was a cakewalk.
"It would take two or three of us to get the cow to stand in front of the inspector, on wobbly legs, and he would say 'That's fine,' " says the activist who videotaped the slaughterhouse conditions during his six week presence at the plant.
Hallmark/Westland was cited for excessive electric prodding of animals in 2005 and e Coli risks in 2002, USDA officials admitted when questioned by reporters.
Farm Sanctuary, a separate animal welfare group, says it videotaped Hallmark/Westland using forklifts to move animals a full fifteen years ago.
And there's another reason the recall is the perfect storm. It horrifies on both health and humane grounds.
The 27 million pounds of meat Hallmark/Westland distributed to the National School Lunch Program and other USDA programs exceeds the 21.7 million pounds of e Coli contaminated meat New Jersey based Topps Meat Company distributed before it went out of business in 2007.
But unlike people who ate Topps meat, people who ate Hallmark/Westland meat are still in danger because of mad cow's long incubation period.
E coli can shut down a meat company but mad cow disease can wipe out the entire cattle industry within a matter of weeks. That's why when someone in the US comes down with what could be mad cow disease, health officials are quick to call the condition "spontaneous" or "hereditary" to forestall panic.
A spokesman for the Wesley Medical Center in Wichita where a 53-year-old Kansas man died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in January said his doctor said it was "not the mad cow version," says Reuters--prior to lab tests that could confirm his diagnosis. And even though the unnamed man had worked in a slaughterhouse and hunted elk.
Health officials also call recent Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease clusters in Idaho and Indiana a coincidence.
Then there are the humane questions that dwell in a system that makes a sick or dying animal get up and walk to slaughter so no one loses forty dollars on its carcass.
Who is that hungry?
With his predecessor Mike Johanns running for the Senate in Nebraska and ex Secretary Ann Veneman safely at UNICEF, Schafer, former North Dakota Governor, no doubt resents the mess he's inherited and has resorted to swiftboating.
"The Humane Society, since late October, has been willing to let animals suffer out there," rather than notify USDA he said in front of a cattle group in Reno last week, ignoring the fact that eight inspectors were on-site
But the Los Angeles Times isn't buying it.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture has 7,800 pairs of eyes scrutinizing 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation, But in the end, it took an undercover operation by an animal rights group to reveal that beef from ill and abused cattle had entered the human food supply," it wrote.
It used to be said if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians.
After the Hallmark/Westland expose "some would be in jail" might be a corollary.
And not the one with the swimming pools.