Two weeks ago in “USDA – D is for ‘Downer’” I discussed the graphic and disturbing video taken by the Humane Society containing footage of “downer” cows – those too ill to walk – being shoveled into a meat processing facility in Chino, Calif. That film has since led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef.
The recall has become big news which is great, but as I’ve read and listened to the coverage I’ve been angry about one thing: The news agencies keep calling it a “USDA recall,” which is flat wrong and is misleading the public.
Why? Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no authority to recall so much as a single hamburger. All it can to is request, “pretty please,” that the manufacturer voluntarily issue a recall. If the system really worked – or even if it were meant to work – there might still have been a recall but it wouldn’t have been for 143 million pounds of meat processed over two years, and it certainly wouldn’t have been voluntary.
Oh sure, as this Congressional Research Report states, USDA can apply some pressure by, say, pulling inspectors from plants – in which case the facilities are no longer permitted to sell across state lines. Or the agency can put a hold on distribution for up to 20 days. But if the meat processor balks there’s nothing the USDA can do about it. The USDA isn’t even permitted by law to inform consumers about where the recalled beef was sold. So if you’re wondering if you bought some of the beef that’s being recalled – you’ll have to keep wondering. That’s a trade secret of the company selling the possibly contaminated product. Nor can the USDA require that the recalled meat be destroyed. If Hallmark chooses to it can turn around and sell that meat outside of this country. In other words, their corporate “trade” secrets are more important to our government than your health.
Someone once commented that corporations have rights without responsibilities. This is a fundamental flaw in any social actor. When the health of corporal (living) members of a society is stacked against a corporation’s (non-living entity’s) welfare and then arbitrated by a government that feels it must treat corporations as individuals without the authority to impose the same set of responsibilities on the corporations that it does on real humans, well, then you – we – have a problem.
I quite understand the value of corporations and their ability to concentrate and apply capital. Without them I wouldn’t be able to catch a plane to New Orleans. Corporations make it possible for me to use the Internet to research places to stay (and more importantly eat) when I get to there. Corporations make renting a car in advance simple. But while I may need a large well-run corporate entity to help me find a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t have to be owned and manage by one. The same goes with a restaurant. And when a corporation can make me ill or even kill me without being held responsible for its actions then we – you and I – have failed in our effort to govern ourselves.
You can argue that the recall shows the system works. And the same argument may well be made in defending the lawsuits that may be filed in the wake of this scandal. But becasue there’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this specific event, it’s not very different from pointing a gun at a stranger’s head, pulling the trigger, and upon failing to blow their brains out argue, “Hey! No harm done.”
In the latest recall Hallmark could have simply stonewalled. And that, may in the end, be the result. Apparently the company is going out of business just as Topps Meat did and under similar circumstances. So, in the end, what does the corporation stand to lose by not recalling the meat? In fact, it may have been better off if it hadn’t since then it wouldn’t have to reimburse those who purchased the meat. And, of course, a company closes its doors is one that’s harder to sue for any damages.
Given the drastic increase in recalls – not just meat but drugs and other products – those options becomes more logical, if you’re corporate but not corporeal. And especially if the dog guarding you has no teeth.