Ground Beef Recall

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(HOST) Commentator Mary Barrosse Schwartz is a policy and communications consultant – and a part time farmer. She and her husband raise much of their own food, but their son enjoys an occasional school lunch. So the recent meat recall – much of it intended for use in Vermont schools – felt just too close for comfort.

(BARROSSE) It was the largest recall in US history – 143 million pounds of ground beef.

One third of the meat had been distributed to the federal school lunch program, and it’s estimated that 90% of Vermont’s public schools received a portion of this meat and served much of it from October 2006 until mid February.

The meat was recalled after the Humane Society of America made a random visit to the Westland Hallmark meat production facility in Chino, CA, and videotaped sick cattle being abused, then fork-lifted to slaughter.

The concern with slaughtering sick, or what’s known as "downer cattle" since they can’t walk, is the possible spread of prion disease. In cows it’s called Mad Cow Disease. In humans it’s called Creutzfeld Jakob’s Disease, or CJD, but both are prion diseases. And humans can acquire CJD by eating diseased meat.

Prion disease attacks the neurologic system, and cannot be killed by cooking or freezing meat. It is both incurable and fatal. It takes decades to develop symptoms, which can initially be misdiagnosed as depression, insomnia, and dementia.

We’ve had a law on the books since 2003 that prohibits slaughtering downer cattle for meat. Recently the USDA was allowed to change the rules to allow downer cattle to be used if a vet could show that the cattle had an injury. But the Humane Society has announced they are now suing the USDA over the rule because they say that cows that are sick from neurological diseases are more likely to fall and break a leg, so there’s still a risk.

In the wake of the recall, the Secretary of Agriculture has attempted to reassure the public that the meat was safe. Experts say that if there were cows with prion disease in the California herd, they would have known about it before processing, because of the safeguards in place. In the last few years 750,000 cows have been tested in the U.S. and only 2 have been found to be infected – there was also a recent positive case in Canada, and outbreaks in the UK – but not every cow in the U.S. is tested.

I was shocked to learn that the USDA conducted inspections at this plant at regular times, so that the management and workers knew when they had to follow the rules for public safety and when they didn’t. It was a private charity, the Humane Society that was the whistle blower. And, they say that their choice of meat plants was random, so who knows how widespread this practice may be?

In the wake of the recall, Congress is taking another look at food safety with a series of hearings. They invited the owner of Westland Hallmark, Steve Mendell, to attend the first hearing, but he didn’t show up. They are now considering a subpoena to compel him to attend. In the meantime, until Congress can assure us that our meat supply really is safe, we’re more determined than ever to use local, known sources. And at least for now, our son has pretty much lost his appetite for school lunch.

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