Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Pot Calls the Kettle Black

THIS journalism business can be humbling at times.

Last week, I wrote about Trader Joe's banning single ingredient food items imported from China due to consumer concerns.

And rightfully so, I concluded. Since last year, when contaminated Chinese pet food killed or sickened thousands of animals in the U.S., some food imports were being stopped at the port and lead-tainted toys made in China were being yanked from store shelves, Chinese imports have come under increasing scrutiny, not without some justification.

As it turns out, this was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

That's because several days later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. of Chino, the subject of an animal-abuse investigation.

It's the biggest recall in history from a company that supplies meat for - can this get any worse? - school lunches and other public nutrition programs.

Hallmark/Westland also produces the makings for some of those goodies you wolf down at Jack-in-the-Box and In-N-Out.

The USDA, looking to put a positive spin on this fiasco, said the vast majority of the meat involved in the recall probably has been eaten already. And the danger to consumers was minimal.

It all goes to remind us that we should put our own house in order before pointing a finger at someone else.

The recall came after the Humane Society released a video showing workers at the Chino plant using prods, water hoses and even fork lifts to raise "downer cattle," those too weak to walk, so that they could be slaughtered.

Downer cattle are not supposed to be used as meat until a veterinarian determines whether an animal is injured or sick. Cows that cannot walk pose an added risk of mad cow disease.

The video was disturbing, to say the least. So disturbing that the San Bernardino County officials filed felony and misdemeanor charges alleging animal cruelty against two Hallmark employees.

There are no nice videos of slaughterhouses. It's a place where big animals become bite-sized. It's a violent and dehumanizing process.

But we are a nation of meat eaters so we look the other way.

Yet the never-pretty picture is getting uglier:

In 1999, 35 million pounds of hot dogs and pork and poultry projects were recalled from the Thorn Apple Valley's Forest City, Ark., processing plant because of possible contamination with the bacteria that causes listeriosis.

In September 2007, Topps Meat Co. recalled 21 million pounds of ground beef that may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

In June 2007, a California meat supplier expanded a beef recall to include a total of 5.7 million pounds of both fresh and frozen products because they might have been contaminated with E. coli. United Food Group, LLC, already had announced two recalls. But a positive test for E. coli in a patient in Arizona pushed the company to expand the recall.

In November 2007, Cargill Meat Solutions recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef products because they may have been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

There were 21 recalls of beef related to E. coli last year, compared with eight in 2006 and five in 2005, according to the New York Times. No one is quite sure what caused the increase, although theories include the cyclical nature of pathogens and changes in cattle-feeding practices caused by the ethanol boom.

None of that makes sense to Michael R. Taylor, who headed the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service during the Clinton administration.

The current inspection scheme is obsolete and wasteful, Taylor told the AP. Much as they did 100 years ago, USDA inspectors check hundreds of millions of beef and pork carcasses and some 8 billion chickens annually devoting about 2 seconds to each bird, he said.

Instead, the focus should be on checking for E. coli bacteria in beef, and other microscopic dangers in poultry, he said.

In the meantime, there is little likelihood that the buying public will change its eating habits.
Consumers kept eating beef after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in December 2003. While U.S. beef exports dropped sharply then, domestic demand was largely unchanged.

The good news is that they're taking notice in Washington.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said in a statement that USDA must toughen its inspection measures before animals are slaughtered to prevent future occurrences.

"How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?" said the Iowa Democrat. "Federal regulations exist for a reason - to protect public health."

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