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Huge meat recall prods further reforms

From fast-food chains to Congress, moves are afoot to reduce animal suffering and ensure food safety

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2008

Recalled: A Hallmark security guard closes a gate at the Chino, Calif. plant that was the site of the largest meat recall in US history. It has been shut since Feb. 4.

Therese Tran

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Ashland, Ore.

This week's recall of 143 million pounds of beef represents the confluence of two important trends in US agriculture: the push for more humane treatment of farm animals, and efforts to prevent the spread of disease.

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Under pressure from consumers and animal rights groups, major restaurant and grocery chains from Burger King to Wolfgang Puck to Safeway are requiring that eggs and meat come from producers that reduce animal suffering.

A new bill in the US House of Representatives would require the federal government to do the same for food it buys for schools, prisons, and the armed forces.

"Just as they set standards for fuel efficiency or hiring practices [in government contracts], they can set standards for animal welfare," says Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS], which provided the secret video of animal abuse that led to the beef recall.

Other bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate would ban US Department of Agriculture inspectors from approving any meat from sick and injured cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals, closing a regulation loophole critics say now exists. It also requires immediate humane euthanasia for farm animals unable to stand.

So-called "downer" cattle are at the heart of mad cow disease. Known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), it is believed to be carried by animal feed made from cattle brains or spinal cord. Because the inability to walk or get up is a sign of an advanced stage of mad cow disease, the USDA generally prohibits downer cattle from being used as food – either for human consumption or indirectly as feed for other animals that might become part of the human food chain.

The recent case involves dairy cows no longer producing milk and headed for the slaughterhouse. Secret video shot by HSUS investigators shows employees of the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., kicking, beating, dragging, and using electrical shocks, water hoses, and forklift trucks to force downed cows onto the "killing floor." The company had been slaughtering about 500 cows a day.

Two company employees have been charged with cruelty to animals. Westland/Hallmark had no choice but to recall the beef, some of it destined for the National School Lunch Program, because federal regulations had been violated in the slaughter of downed cows for human consumption.

Any possible connection to mad cow disease can have great impact on US beef exports.

After a 2003 incident of BSE in the United States involving a downed cow in Washington State, dozens of countries prohibited the import of US beef. In recent years, some – notably Japan – have begun accepting US beef again. In 2007, US beef exports rose 18 percent in volume and 28 percent in sales value, and the industry is eager to prevent anything from reversing that trend.

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