Huge meat recall prods further reforms
From fast-food chains to Congress, moves are afoot to reduce animal suffering and ensure food safety
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National Cattlemen's Beef Association vice president James Reagan lauded the USDA's "abundance of caution" in the recent case involving mistreatment and meat processing of downed cattle. "We can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe," Mr. Reagan said.Skip to next paragraph
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But importers are keeping a wary eye. Last month, Japan suspended shipments from a Pennsylvania plant of beef from cows beyond the age limit Japanese officials had set (20 months).
To many critics, treatment of farm animals is closely related to and just as important as food safety.
Earlier this month, the Safeway grocery chain announced that it was seeking suppliers that do not pack egg-producing chickens into small cages, that use more humane ways of killing chickens, and that do not confine sows to "gestation stalls" in which it is impossible to turn around.
A few days later, the Denny's restaurant chain announced that it would begin using cage-free eggs. Burger King, Hardee's, and Carl's Jr. already have done so, and animal rights groups now are pressuring Wendy's to follow suit.
USDA officials, who are charged both with promoting agriculture and with making sure farm products are safe and animals treated humanely, sought to reassure consumers in the wake of the Chino case.
"It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE, because of the multiple safeguards," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement announcing the recall, the largest in US history.
But critics say the incident illustrates the need for more regulation.
"We need more proactive, safer slaughterhouse rules, more inspectors in the facilities," says attorney Scott Schlesinger of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represented the family of a teenager made sick by tainted meat last year. "That points to a growing problem of sweetheart relationships between those regulators working in the government who then move into industry and those working in the industry who then move to government. This pattern makes for lax enforcement."
Consumers aware of the recent recall are thinking hard about beef as part of their diet.
"I'm not worried," says Todd Devane, who has been buying beef from Hardy's Meat Market in Sherman Oaks, Calif., for more than 10 years. "On the other hand, I have friends who are going vegetarian and vegan because they keep hearing about recalls like this. I think what it points up is that people have to learn to trust the businesses they use. And if not, go somewhere else."