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A sickening spectacle

February 18, 2008
USA Today

Where's the beef? That catch phrase this week is giving way to a more troubling question: What's in the beef? A mind-boggling 143 million pounds of frozen meat was recalled by the government Sunday from a California slaughterhouse, the largest recall in US history.

The beef subjected to the recall dates to February 2006. Most of it has already been consumed, including in school lunch programs. Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture say the recall is more precautionary than anything else. No one is known to have gotten sick from eating the beef. But that's hardly reason for relief.

Quite the contrary. The circumstances raise serious concerns. The USDA says the cows that were slaughtered "did not receive complete and proper inspection."

The obvious question is, why not? After all, the USDA has 6,000 veterinarians stationed at slaughterhouses across the nation. They are there to prevent sick cows from entering the food supply.

Here's how the system is supposed to work: USDA vets inspect the cows as they head to slaughter. "Downer" cows too sick to stand aren't allowed to proceed because they are more likely to be suffering from mad cow disease or carrying harmful bacteria. If a cow becomes a downer after inspection and before slaughter, the plant is supposed to notify the vets for a new inspection. That, the USDA says, is what didn't happen in the California case.

Perhaps. But the scandalous conditions at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing, based in Chino, only came to light because animal rights activists went undercover and filmed the horrific way workers tried to get the downer cows to stand. The cows were so stricken it defies belief that they got that way in the minutes or hours between inspection and slaughter.

The video shows cows being given electric shocks, dragged by chains attached to trucks, hauled by forklifts and subjected to simulated drowning. So many questions need answers. Did the vets not notice? Were there enough of them at the plant? The plant owner says he is shocked. Is he really? What if the activists had not exposed this? Did the USDA act quickly enough? Is the situation an anomaly or is it more widespread?

In fact, this is not the first time such troubling questions have been raised. Two years ago, a USDA audit found that 29 "downer" cows had been slaughtered, against the rules, at two of the 12 plants it inspected.

Planned congressional hearings need to get answers. USDA needs to ensure that standards are not just set but also enforced. Recalls are a poor substitute for ensuring the safety of the food supply in the first place.

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