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.
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.
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.
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."