This last week was filled with headlines about the recall of beef from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. There were two things that stood out to me about the incident and the press coverage. First, most of the headlines concentrated on food safety concerns. "Downer" cows—those so sick or disabled that they can't walk on their feet—were being pushed with fork lifts into the dismemberment lines, and yet most news organizations concentrated only on the health concerns to people—our children may be eating beef from sick cattle, oh my! We certainly don't want to be eating bad meat, but the health risks are obviously small. Millions of pounds of this beef were already consumed with no ill effects. The scare was one more example of our inane ability to judge risks.
The real wrong in the story was the horrific treatment of the cattle. Yet while this got passing mention in some news stories, it wasn't front and center. It makes me wonder if the story would be as sticky if the same video was released by the humane society and the "downer" cows weren't going toward the butchering lines, but were being dragged and pushed by forklifts toward rendering trucks. Probably not, because that is what happens in slaughterhouses day in and day out. The cruelty in the video isn't extraordinary, only where the cows’ destination is.
The response to the story hasn't been to better humane standards in slaughterhouses. It has been to increase food safety inspections. This brings me to my second point. You cannot fix an absolutely broken industry through better inspections. There is no way to properly inspect hundreds of cows per hour. It’s gruesome work, and certainly not something a low paid government employee wants to do. So many inspectors spend most of their time in their office, making sure the paper work is in order.
To fix the problem of food safety and create a humane slaughter system we need to change the scale and proximity of slaughter. What if instead of a few large-scale slaughterhouses centered in remote towns we had many small-scale slaughterhouses close to cities and the consumers who buy from them?
These slaughterhouses should have open door policies where customers and farmers were welcome to watch any part of the process at any time. Inspection would be primarily done by customers, but there would also be room for unannounced spot checks by the USDA or state health agencies. The slaughterhouse would be limited to the number of animals it could kill in a day, with an appropriate ratio of people working the kill floor to the animals being slaughtered.
The possibility for this system already lies in the hundreds of custom slaughterhouses around the country. The only problem is that the meat that comes from many of these slaughterhouses comes with the label "Not For Sale” because it wasn’t USDA inspected (can that seal honestly mean anything given the recent news?). Okay, so don't sale it. Create clubs and community farms where members share ownership of the animals and customers and farmers are equally owners of the animals all the way through the process. Consumers would be slaughtering their own cows, not those of some alien feedlot. Humane treatment of animals and food safety are only possible outside of the industrial system.
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