"It's really closing the barn door after the cows left."
That's what Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said about the largest beef recall in U.S. history, which is affecting 30 school systems across Tennessee. Halloran is exactly right.
The recall affects beef products that came from Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California dating back to Feb. 1, 2006. Officials investigating the charges against Westland/Hallmark believe most of the meat has already been eaten.
The Department of Agriculture says it will work with distributors to determine how much meat remains. It's a shame they weren't so eager to conduct thorough inspections to prevent tainted meat from being distributed to the public in the first place.
According to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, the department still permits slaughterhouses to process downer cows, which are live cows that cannot walk, into meat. This is despite federal regulations, which discourage it because of the heightened risk of contamination from E. coli, Salmonella or mad cow disease.
Westland should be prosecuted fittingly, if not for violating state or local laws, for animal abuse. Prosecution may serve as a deterrent to other companies engaging in unsafe handling practices.The department's only stipulation is that downer cows can only be slaughtered with an inspector's approval.
It must be fairly easy to get an inspector's approval because the department Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Dick Raymond said USDA inspectors were at Westland slaughterhouses continuously.
Maybe the inspectors were taking a break while the Humane Society secretly taped two Westland employees kicking, shocking and forcing water down the throats of animals too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse on their own.
Here's an idea - the USDA should hire the Humane Society to monitor slaughterhouses. They seem to be more thorough in their investigations than the USDA's own inspectors.
Besides, this isn't the first time potentially contaminated food has been taken out of our schools.
In March 1997, 153 cases of hepatitis A were reported in Calhoun County, Mich., and 151 of the cases were students or staff of schools in four different school districts. As a result, the USDA ordered the state agencies to contact school districts to place an immediate hold on unused products.
In February, cans of beans were pulled out of Tennessee schools because of a botulism scare.
The USDA should be commended for placing timely holds on potentially contaminated unused products, but this doesn't help those individuals who already ingested the products. One way to prevent contamination of food products is by prosecuting companies that are caught purposely engaging in unsafe handling of food products or sources.
Deputy District Attorney Glenn Yabuno of San Bernardino, Calif., said prosecutors are investigating whether Westland's business practices violated any state or local laws.
Westland should be prosecuted fittingly, if not for violating state or local laws, for animal abuse. Prosecution may serve as a deterrent to other companies engaging in unsafe handling practices.
Pacelle hopes the Humane Society's exposure of the Westland employees will bring attention to downer cattle, and he hopes it will prompt lawmakers to pass pending legislation in the House and Senate to keep downer cows out of the food supply.
Pacelle is thinking proactively.
Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, has taken Pacelle's concerns seriously. Kohl and other subcommittee members told the USDA Feb. 28 that changes need to be made to the Agriculture Department's meat inspection program - beginning with the elimination of downer cows from the food supply.
Keeping downer cattle out of the food supply isn't going to solve all food contamination problems, but it's a start - and it's one less source of contamination we'll have to worry about.