The tentacles of the largest beef recall in history -- 143,383,823 lbs. -- have reached all across the country. If the surreptitious video of exhausted and disabled dairy cattle being tortured to take their last few steps to the kill box of the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA weren't disturbing enough, local papers around the country were brimming with coverage on school districts that utilized product from the offending firm in their cafeterias.
Reportedly school cafeterias in 36 states received product from Hallmark/Westland, which is USDA's second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program.
Most of the voluntarily recalled meat is thought to have already been consumed, and there have been no reported illnesses. Rather, federal meat inspection services were pulled because the firm "did not consistently contact the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations," USDA says.
The company actually consists of two operations. Hallmark Meat Packing did the processing, and Westland Meat Co. marketed the product. Together, the firms were cited as a supplier of the year by the National School Lunch Program in 2005.
The LA Times reports the 200-employee operation sold beef to USDA's school lunch program and fast-food restaurants, including In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box. Last year, the federal government purchased nearly $39 million of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark out of total annual sales of roughly $100 million.
At press time, media reported two workers -- one 49 years old and the other 32 years old -- had been charged in the incident. Of course, management was out in front, at first claiming the images were fake, and later crying ignorance of the conditions.
In a statement posted on the company's website, president Steve Mendell said: "Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 through November 14, 2007."
It made me think of what animal-handling guru Temple Grandin told me a few years ago when we worked together on an article on the audits she was conducting of animal-handling practices in the nation's packing plants. She said the number-one factor governing the quality of animal handling in such facilities was the attitude of management. If management is engaged and forceful, these types of incidents don't happen.
"This issue is totally management. This had nothing to do with facilities and all to do with management. For one thing an employee doesn't just go get a forklift. This treatment is some of the worst I've seen in my 35 years in this industry," she says.
"What's frustrating is that all the good plants out there are getting painted by the Hallmark brush. The Humane Society of the U.S., which released this video, wants to make it seem like this treatment dominates the industry but it doesn't," she says.
Grandin says the watershed year in animal handling in packing plants occurred in 1999 when the McDonald's and Wendy's chains instituted their animal-handling audits of product suppliers.
"I saw more change in animal handling in that year than in the entire 25 years prior to that. Under-performing plants were taken off the approved supplier list and that got their attention. McDonald's moved an industry." But even prior to that watershed time, there were some very good examples of animal handling and treatment and it all came back to the management of those operations, she adds. (For more detail on animal-handling quality in packing operations, visit grandin.com and click on "surveys" from the main menu).
She says the industry must clean up problem plants because such undercover videos are not going away. "You can't stop these cameras; they're the size of a sugar tube. But I've seen a lot of undercover videos, and that (Hallmark) one is one of the worst. If management was engaged, you wouldn't have that stuff happen."
USDA isn't without blame in the incident, she says. For one thing, there's a problem with inconsistent inspection -- one inspector might be strict and another lax. In addition, a lot of federal regulations are very vague and subject to interpretation. "But dragging conscious downers is strictly forbidden, and the law certainly isn't ambiguous on that case. It is clearly not allowed," she says.
Grandin says that overall the livestock industry has done a poor job of communicating with the public on the job it does. "We need to put a narrated video tour of a packing plant on the web. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has anti-meat footage available on its website and we present no counter argument.
"I've spent 35 years working with these plants. The Tyson and Cargill plants are very good but the suits in the corporate office are too bunker mentality to communicate with the public on the good job they do. They're ruled by panic and fear," she says.
The fallout over the incident is tough to gauge at this point, but it has all the earmarks of a watershed incident -- egregious cruelty toward animals, and dirty conditions that can stir wonder about the quality of the overall meat supply. Plus, the reach extends right into our kids' cafeterias.
Politicians are lining up for their turn in front of the news lens. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) recently asked: "How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal safety regulations?" And, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, is leading a Democratic lawmakers' call for an independent government investigation into the safety of meat in the National School Lunch Program.
With the Humane Society of the U.S. -- the outfit that planted the worker and released the video -- claiming to have moles in a handful of other operations as well, brace yourselves for more potentially bad news about "factory farming."
That is, unless the industry gets serious about proving that Hallmark is indeed an isolated incident.