View from the Levee: Stomach-Turning News

Big meatpackers and livestock groups are in court fighting to prevent enforcement of country-of-origin labeling. Alan Guebert theorizes that’s because if we knew where our meat came from, we might just lose our appetite.

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Last week’s Washington Post carried the best explanation yet on why the biggest U.S. meatpackers, their Capitol Hill lobbying fronts and two major American livestock organizations are now in federal court seeking to block Congressionally-mandated country-of-origin-labeling of all meat sold in the U.S.

That suit—in which Big Meat suffered a set-back Sept. 11—hopes to keep you from knowing where the red meat and poultry you purchase was born, raised and slaughtered.

Why?

The title of the well-researched Post story by Kimberly Kindy tells you why: “USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat.”

The story, all 2,881 words of it, isn’t for the fainthearted. It details how a pliable U.S. Department of Agriculture began testing a new meat inspection protocol in 1997 called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspections Models Project, or HIMPS for short.

Since then, however, its two key elements, faster processing speeds and replacing half of the USDA safety inspectors with “inspectors employed by meat companies” in each “test” plant, have led to millions of pounds of contaminated beef, pork, mutton and lamb in the U.S.

According to the Post story, the changes are striking failures in the five hog processing plants where they were implemented almost 16 years ago. According to its investigation:

  • Of the10 pork plants with the most health and safety violations in the U.S. since the tests were put into place, three are “pilot” plants.
  • The safety records at these three plants “were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. swine plants that continued to operate under the traditional system of slower … speeds and about double the number of government inspectors.”
  • “The plant with the worst record by far was one of the five in the pilot program.”
  • And even as the lengthy “pilot” program had yet to be evaluated for its effectiveness, “USDA has allowed other countries to use a process deemed to be equivalent in plants producing red meat for export to the United States.”

Not coincidentally, the off-shore adoption of these pilot processes has been fraught with contamination, also.

“Last fall,” for example, “a Canadian beef-processing plant using the inspection system had to recall 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products tainted with E. coli—about 2.5 million pounds of which went to the U.S. market.”

And, the story continues, “… since the beginning of last year, 11 shipments of beef, mutton and goat meat from at least four Australian plants using the procedures were stopped at U.S. ports because of contaminations.”

What kind of “contaminations”?

The stomach-turning kind. The “records show,” reports the Post, “that the contamination included fecal matter and partly digested food.”

That sickening news in only half of the really bad news.

According to the Post, “The USDA inspector general reported this spring that, after 15 years, the department has yet to study whether the program was meeting its stated goals of improving both food safety and efficiency in plants.”

In short, the program—despite, at best, its spotty record and, in truth, its dismal record—not only continues, USDA continues to export it to other nations seeking to export their meat and poultry to us, the dollar-dripping top of the global food chain.

And that’s exactly why Big Meat pushes it.

If USDA certifies foreign slaughter facilities as “equivalent” to U.S. facilities, then trans-national meatpackers can market the facilities’ output as equal in safety and quality to that of the U.S. That assumption is worth billions to Big Meat.

But you’ll be in the dark because—if packers succeed in their labeling lawsuit—packers will not be required to list the meat’s country of origin even though eight out of 10 U.S. consumers say they want to know the origin of the food they buy, especially meat.

Big Meat and their allies in Big Ag, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producer’s Council, claim country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, is too costly and unnecessary under USDA’s “equivalency” standards.

Baloney. Read the Post story. Chew through its facts.

Then do as I do: Only buy meat from a guy who wears a blood-stained apron, carries a sharp knife and has a roll a white butcher paper on his meat counter. Everything else is just everything else.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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