Where’s the beef?

It’s been suggested that we’re better off not knowing how either sausages or laws are made - and this week, a widening scandal at a California meat-processing plant has been helping to drive both points home.

The problems began when the Humane Society released undercover footage showing workers at a Westland/Hallmark plant mistreating ill and injured cows. The animals, too feeble to stand, were shocked with cattleprods, kicked, sprayed in the face with high-pressure hoses, and finally jabbed and rolled over with a forklift truck as plant workers attempted to force them to their feet.

For animal rights activists, the videos were a propaganda coup to make Peter Singer proud, guaranteed to push at least a few queasy carnivores into vegetarianism. But it didn’t stop there: This week, the plant was forced to issue America’s largest-ever beef recall, admitting that over 143 million pounds of meat had been produced in violation of Agriculture Department regulations.

It emerged that for at least two years plant workers had ignored rules intended to prevent the spread of Mad Cow Disease, slaughtering ailing cattle - known in the trade as “downers” - and processing them for human consumption. That’s illegal and dangerous - and the recall doesn’t help much, since the affected beef has probably already been eaten.

This doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Agricultural Department’s inspectors, who failed to spot anything despite being permanently stationed at the plant. And according to a 2006 government report, such shenanigans may be the rule rather than the exception: A study of 12 slaughterhouses found that in a period of just nine months at least 29 downer cows were killed for human consumption.

Equally at fault, though, are federal lawmakers. In the past seven years, Congress has voted on three separate occasions to pass a permanent and unequivocal ban on the slaughter and sale of downed animals - and all three times, party leaders quietly removed the ban from the final version of the legislation. In doing so, they signaled that the Agriculture Department’s existing temporary ban wasn’t a congressional priority, and ceded momentum to industry lobbyists seeking to weaken the regulations still further.

As this week’s events show, there’s a real cost to this kind of complacency. Fortunately, a handful of dedicated lawmakers are now introducing downer-ban legislation for a fourth time, along with new rules covering everything from battery hens to breeding pigs. Let’s hope that this time they succeed; we shouldn’t have to rely on the Humane Society’s hidden cameras to safeguard the welfare of our livestock or the safety of our food.

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