You wouldn't think you could "spin" a video that shows slaughterhouse workers electric shocking downer cows, "water boarding" them, jabbing their eyes with herding paddles and ramming them with forklift blades while they squeal in pain, posted at www.hsus.org, but USDA is trying.
Bad enough the slaughterhouse, Hallmark Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA, supplies the National School Lunch Program, a certain portion of children have already eaten the meat.
Bad enough US downer cattle are, according to Cattlenetwork, "being forced to their feet in order to pass inspection and be processed," in violation of mad cow regulations, USDA inspectors were onsite--at the plant--while the video was made.
Bad enough Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out have pulled beef from the Chino slaughterhouse, what happens to the five year long charm offense toward Asian nations since the last mad cow scare?
You'd be spinning too if you were USDA!
Just look at the history.
Less than two years after diners in 11 restaurants in nine California counties ate meat from the first US mad cow according to the San Francisco Chronicle, newly appointed US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns who left last year vowed to reverse the ban on downer cattle.
"I supported Ann Veneman when she announced that--just to assure the public that we were aggressively on top of this issue," said Johanns. "But gosh the testing that has been done [shows the risks are low] and our animals have done well."
A year into Johanns' tenure, the Houston Chronicle reported 29 downers untested for mad cow got into in the food supply because inspectors "did not believe that they had the authority" to go into the animals' pens.
Meat executives tried to claim the animals suffered injury after passing inspection--which would make slaughter legal--but investigators found no records of injuries after arrival for 20 of the downers that ended up on US dinner plates.
How can USDA spin a video that's convinced 150 school districts from New York City to Los Angeles to quarantine their meat? Called "something out of Dante's Inferno" by Gene Evans of Oregon's school system?
Well first of all, "there's no evidence that any of the animals, particularly downers in particular, did in fact enter the food supply," said Dr. Kenneth Peterson, assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) in a conference phone call on Thursday. "Now perhaps they moved them in an unacceptable manner but the fact remains, did they go into the food supply?" he told reporters. Maybe "the facility was moving them back out of the slaughter chain."
Right. And maybe they were taking them to dinner and a movie.
Then there's the fact that the video represents "allegations" only pending USDA's own investigation says Peterson to which Bill Tomson of Dow Jones News Wire responded incredulously, "I mean, do you actually expect to go down there and ask them if they were doing anything illegal, and people to say, well yes we were?"
There's also the fact that no one has gotten sick yet, say FSIS officials, deliberately confusing bacteria like e Coli and salmonella which cause treatable conditions that make you sick right away and can be cooked out of food with the mad cow prion which is an untreatable replicating protein that is virtually indestructible and manifests years later.
Then there's the fact that the downers in the video aren't battered from unremitting abuse on mega dairy farms which created mad cow disease by feeding dead cows to live ones--a cheap and plentiful protein for rBGH frenzied metabolisms--they just have broken legs and hips from unfortunate accidents, says Peterson.
The important thing is the USDA mad cow prevention system that relies on filtering out Specific Risk Material (SRM) like brains and spinal cords--isn't an entire downer SRM?--and the unsupervised honor system known as HACCP, works!
So well, restaurants who got the meat won't be notified says Peterson, because, "I have a lot of information from this plant both on the obviously the inspectional side but also plant records...that all point to a singular conclusion that the product coming out of the plant not only meets regulatory requirements but is safe and wholesome."
We believe their meat is safe because we believe their meat is safe.
But reporters weren't buying it.
How can inspectors observe slaughter activity and "be discreet" when "all the workers know who they are?" asked the Oregonian's Andy Dworkin.
"It seems like maybe the folks had outsmarted the inspection system," observed Steve Cornet with Beef Today. "Is this a system that's...easily circumvented?"
"Just so that I understand you clearly, you suspended Westland [a distributor of the Hallmark meat] for...allegations rather than what an inspector directly observed?" probed Steve Kay of Cattle Buyers Weekly, possibly wondering what USDA is being paid for if the Humane Society is doing its work.
Yes, responded Peterson. Any more questions?
Martha Rosenberg is a cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable in Evanston, Illinois.