Slaughterhouse Politics

Ranchers Fought Rules That Might Have Prevented Mad Cow

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—When it comes to politics you just can't beat the cattlemen for bellyaching. They are forever running around Washington, wanting to pay lower fees for overgrazing the public range or demanding cutbacks in environmental laws that might actually slightly intrude on their operations, and like everyone else under the big Republican tent, babbling on about the wonders of the "free market."

In what will surely rank as cattle ranchers' biggest and stupidest p.r. campaign, some Amarillo ranchers sued Oprah because in 1996 she had Howard Lyman, a former rancher and food activist, as a guest on her show. The ranch owners think Lyman is a dangerous nut. He told Oprah how the beef men were feeding cattle ground up bits and pieces of other cattle, including stuff from sick cows, and warned it was only a matter of time before Mad Cow Disease hit the U.S.

The cattlemen flipped out. Paul Engler, owner of Cactus Feeders Inc. filed suit, claiming that Oprah and Lyman hurt the cattle futures market and charging that they violated a Texas law that forbids "knowingly making false statements" about agricultural business. Claiming a right to free speech, Oprah won, but the beef men nonetheless insisted you could rest assured that Mad Cow could never come to the U.S.

It is unclear whether the government's ban on "downers," animals that can't walk, from going into the food supply will actually keep this meat from being consumed. Downers may well end up being fed to other animals. And the USDA's testing program applies to only a few thousand head of cattle, when there are millions of animals going into the feed supply. Currently the USDA tests some 20,000 animals a year out of 29 million steers and heifers slaughtered.

Since 1997 the government has supposedly been implementing a ban on the use of animal parts in food supplements given to cattle. Factory farming necessitates weaning the calf from the mother shortly after birth and feeding it protein supplements, which often contain parts of other cattle and other animals. But on January 31, the Washington Post reported that the General Accounting Office, the organization which carries out investigations for Congress, has criticized enforcement of the ban as lax.

What the cattlemen detest most is the meat inspection system. The story of how Upton Sinclair muckraked the slaughterhouses some one hundred years ago and Teddy Roosevelt jumped in and fixed them all up is pretty much fiction. The simple fact is the meat inspection system isn't any good and anybody who even attempts to stand up to the Big Boy ranchers does so at his or her peril. Look what happened to Bill Lehman, who throughout the early 1990s worked as a meat inspector at Sweetgrass, Montana, a busy port of entry for Canadian beef. By his own count, Lehman himself rejected "up to 2.3 million pounds of contaminated or mislabeled imports annually." The reasons, according to Lehman, included "pus-filled abscesses, sticky layers of bacteria leaving a stench, obvious fecal contamination, stains, metal shavings, blood, bruises, hair, hide, chemical residues, salmonella, added substances, and advanced disease symptoms."

After some children died from an E. coli outbreak in the 90s, Lehman told about his work: "I merely walk to the back of the truck. That's all I'm allowed to do. Whether there's boxed meat or carcasses in the truck, I can't touch the boxes. I can't open the boxes. I can't use a flashlight. I can't walk into the truck. I can only look at what is visible in the back of the trailer." He told one interviewer how he did his inspections: "I've just inspected over 80,000 pounds of meat (boxed beef rounds and boxed boneless beef briskets) on two trucks. I wasn't running or hurrying either. One was bound for Santa Fe Springs, California, the other for San Jose, California. I just stamped on their paperwork 'USDA Inspected and Passed' in 45 seconds."

The revelations by Lehman, who died in 1998, drove the ranchers and their USDA buddies nuts. They said he was a troublemaker and, because he thought free-trade laws made matters worse, a protectionist. He was ordered to retire, face being fired or transfer to another location. He retired, saying he was "just tired of the whole thing." But he fought the USDA until he died.

But Lehman was far from the only critic. "Adequate inspection on the border has been lacking for years, said Mike Callicrate, an outspoken Kansas rancher, especially on the topic of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

What many people don't understand is how minimal meat inspection is. Here's a typical instance, described by an Iowa farmer: He buys cows or heifers at auction, where they have been certified as having met health requirements—not because of first-hand inspection but because of the seller's history as a "good guy." The farmer proceeds to feed the cattle corn, sometimes with a vegetable-based additive, and in two years sells them to a feed lot or maybe a local butcher. There is no check on the health of the animals. Approval for sale is again based on the history of the farm. What about sick cows? Say a cow falls down—he's called a "downer." According to this farmer, a vendor often is called; he'll send a truck to pick up the animal, kill it (if it is still alive), and sell the parts into the meat system. If the farmer spots a sick cow in his herd, he gets rid of it quick as he can. He doesn't go through the rigmarole of testing it through a veterinarian, which takes time and costs money. He just gets rid of the animal and keeps mum about what happened.

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