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USDA – D is For “Downer”


The food news last week was grim, disturbing, and troubling. It featured a video taken by members of the Humane Society of the United States that shows workers at Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, California picking up, rolling over and dragging “downer” cows — animals that can’t walk — with forklifts, shocking the animals, and shooting water up their noses in an effort to get them into the slaughter house. The video is grim and graphic, no animal should ever be treated that way.


The USDA is not doing it’s job, neither is the FDA for that matter, but in this case the primarily responsible agency is the the Department of Agriculture, and it’s not on your side. It may have been, once upon at time. But these days, it’s a government-funded lobbying group for Big Ag. Even worse: Congress had an opportunity to reform this seriously misdirected government bureaucracy when finalizing the Farm Bill, but didn’t.

The events recorded in the video almost certainly aren’t rare. And this is disturbing because downer cows are down because they’re too sick to stand up. The most frightening prospect is they could have mad-cow disease, one of the few diseases that can cross species lines. And bovine spongiform encephalitis may well be a recent development. What other diseases might cattle, forced to live in circumstances for which they didn’t evolve, have developed?

Furthermore, while down they become covered in feces harboring our old nemesis e. Coli. It’s bad enough that animals in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) have to stand around in their own excrement, rolling in it — or being rolled in it — is even worse.

And the troubling part is that Hallmark sells to Westland Meat Co. (Note, Westland President Steve Mendell is also Hallmark’s operations manager. Nepotism anyone?) Westland, in turn, sells to the Agriculture Department’s commodities program, which supplies food for school lunch programs. In fact, in the 2004/2005 school year the Ag Department named Westland its Supplier of the Year. Even if you didn’t think the USDA was on your side, you might have hoped it wasn’t trying to kill your kids. Good luck.

I’m no bleeding heart. I eat meat and have no qualms about it, but I buy most of my meat from local suppliers whose cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens are raised in pastures. I’ve seen those farms. As a shepherd friend of mine notes, “[My lambs] have a darned fine life. They’re coddled and cared for right up until their last moment.” One of my local suppliers explained to me at great length what he looked for in deciding where to have his animals slaughtered. To these people the animals aren’t products, they’re living creatures entitled to be treated with decency and kindness right up to the end. And if you think about it, few of us get to choose our when our last moment occurs, all we can hope for is living comfortably until that moment comes.

Here in Knoxville such humanely-raised meat is about 25 percent more expensive than what I would pay at the supermarket, and it’s less convenient. Furthermore, I confess I haven’t cut back much on my meat eating, but I eat fewer roasts and steaks and eat more cheap cuts. And I can tell you that a grass-fed beef brisket, slowly braised with beer, onions, and carrots is better than almost any steak you can buy at a grocery store. I also trust my meat suppliers. I’ve seen their farms, petted their animals, and I know my supplier’s names as they known mine.

Now, things were certainly worse before the agency was formed – read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But in the near century that’s passed since that book was written, the USDA has turned its attention to promoting agriculture, not protecting citizens. So, the next time you’re tempted to buy a rib-eye steak for $6.00 a pound, remember, it may have come from an animal that was too weak to stand up and so was rolled into the slaughter house with a forklift. Not particularly appetizing, eh?

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