The Latest in the HSUS/Westland/Downer Cattle/Beef Recall Debacle

Let me begin by saying that this issue has grown wildly out of proportion. By that I mean simply that by heralding this as “the largest beef recall ever,” the mainstream press has made an infuriating isolated incident into a great bruhaha of a spectacle, attempting in one fell swope to sully the USDA Inspection Regime, the animal agriculture and beef production industries, and incite mass hysteria about food safety. Let’s pick this apart, starting with the most aggravating issues:


– This is NOT a food safety issue. Regardless of the fact that USDA banned “downer cattle” from the food supply due to a heightened sense of caution regarding BSE, downer cattle were processed for decades as normal practice. The HSUS and their willing accomplices in the media have attempted to paint these animals as those “too sick” for consumption, when most likely they were simply animals injured in the transportation process.


– USDA is NOT largely to blame for this issue. Perhaps USDA needs to tighten its inspections, perhaps some inspectors were asleep at the switch. By and large, however, it is globally accepted fact that we have the most thorough process of food inspection and food safety in the known Universe. While things can always be done more effectively or efficiently, there is not some great systemic failure of public policy in this case.


– Packers and processors are not inherently evil. While there are undoubtedly bad actors in the industry, as there are in any business, to whitewash an entire sector of the economy as willfully negligent, or worse, intentionally harmful, is simply irresponsible. HSUS, true to form, has used their hidden-camera style “Gotcha” video to paint every worker at every processing facility in the country as a wanton animal abuser.


– This incident has nothing whatsoever to do with cattle production on the farm. And yet, in HSUS’ smear video about the incident (I refuse to link to anything from HSUS, so if you want to see it you’ll find it on your own), the call is made to “end factory farming.” Because obviously packers who mistreat animals had to have acquired these poor abused cows from the evil corporate livestock operations of the world.


– HSUS does what it does best: sling mud. By continuing to plant these “undercover operatives” at plants and using their hidden camera videos, HSUS fails to help solve problems, instead using their favored status with the media to advance their own self-aggrandizing anti-agriculture agenda. Note that the video in question was released months after the incidents occurred, when the damage was long since done. The first time a responsible person saw an employee shoving a cow around recklessly with a forklift they would have reported the incident to a supervisor or manager. Instead, these alleged “animal lovers” watch and tape for weeks until they have enough “evidence of abuse” to create their signature webcasts complete with wildly unfounded accusations about the entire animal agriculture universe. As I mentioned earlier, the organization makes links between completely unrelated issues, using a single series of unfortunate incidents to sully farmers and responsible processors everywhere.


The bottom line: the USDA and the local prosecutor are on track. Hang the bad guys out to dry, fix the problems that remain at the plant, and push the recall as a way of reassuring consumers that they’re on the job. HSUS, however, is not to be trusted. Their main mission is to stay in business. With the vast resources at their disposal, they are in the business of remaining visible and viable at whatever means necessary. They will continue to raise money, throw muck at animal agriculture, and spin unfortunate incidents to their own selfish advantage. They have no interest in actually solving problems or finding solutions, because those solutions would render their organization largely irrelevant. This group raises hundreds of million of dollars annually; follow the money trail – there are a lot of people making money off these unfortunate incidents of animal mistreatment, and I’m not talking about the “evil” packers.


We as an industry, meanwhile, have to consider how what we accept as standard practice on the farm or in the processing plant, looks like to the uninitiated public. The use of gestation stalls or veal pens makes inherent sense to us because our experience teaches us that those systems are best for the animal and the producer. To the unaware, however, the farmer appears to be subjecting that sow to harsh confinement. In the case of these downer cows, what should we do with an animal who won’t or can’t get up, and how do we handle sluggish or stubborn cows in the line? What does it look like to a consumer when someone uses a forklift to move a fallen Holstein who likely weighs just under a ton? How does it look when we poke her with a “hot shot?” I don’t have the answers, but with the continued growth of broadband access and YouTube-type websites, we can no longer assume that “what happens on the farm, stays on the farm.” Because it doesn’t.