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Monday, March 17, 2008

(American Meat Institute)

 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video reveals an entire dictionary.  That’s why the earth seemed to suddenly stop turning - if only for a second -  when the horrific images and stories were splashed across America’s television screens and newspapers about an undercover video that was released in the last days of January 2008.  The Humane Society of the United States used this video to allege widespread animal abuse in the meat industry and incite a food safety scare that resulted in the largest meat recall in American history.

 

Much has come to light and many legitimate questions have been raised since that infamous video of the Hallmark/Westland packing plant first hit the airwaves.  But no one can deny that the video shows multiple failures at multiple points within a single plant that is no way representative of the meat packing industry in general.  What that video documented, in fact, is the meat industry’s equivalent of the perfect storm, a series of events that resulted in inexcusable failures – on five levels –  that must never be repeated again. 

 

The first failure occurred in the livestock production and transportation system that supplied cattle to the plant.   Our industry must lead efforts to minimize the arrival of downers — animals that, for a variety of reasons cannot walk — at slaughter and enroll all beef and dairy producers in existing quality assurance programs to ensure that only those animals that will pass federal inspection requirements are sent to slaughter.  In addition, livestock dealers and brokers should be required to provide documented training for employees in proper animal handling and transporting of animals.  And audits to measure animal welfare performance should be conducted.

 

Secondly, failures occurred at the slaughter facility.  Plant personnel did not comply with the Humane Slaughter Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act.  In the future, all processing plant employees handling live animals should be certified for proficiency in proper animal handling procedures and have a thorough knowledge of the regulations.

 

The meat industry is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country, and its daily operations are regulated by more than 20 federal laws, some dating back more than 100 years.  One of those laws makes it a federal offense to mistreat animals that are being harvested for the human food supply.  That law, which has been on the books for decades, was clearly not being enforced at Hallmark Westland.

 

Thirdly, failures occurred within USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  USDA must require that every inspector performing ante mortem inspection be certified for proficiency in animal handling and have a thorough knowledge of the Humane Slaughter Act and other FSIS guidance material. The way these animals were treated was certainly not par for the course in the meat industry.  In fact, respectful and humane handling of livestock is not just a priority for AMI and its members – it is part of our corporate culture.  Nearly 20 years ago, AMI created an Animal Welfare Committee, which began working with the country’s recognized animal welfare expert, Dr. Temple Grandin, a widely-recognized expert on this issue. 

 

Together with AMI, Dr. Grandin developed an “Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide” for packinghouses. These guidelines are a bedrock principal for handling animals in this industry, and are abided by not only because they are the right, and moral thing to do, but because it it makes good business sense as well.  The fact is that optimal animal handling results in better quality meat products. 

 

 

The fourth  failure was due to the inactions of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), which documented this animal abuse as early as November 2007 and failed to take this evidence to USDA until the end of January, 2008.  Why did HSUS sit on this video for months on end  – while animals were being abused on a daily basis  — until finally releasing it to the Washington Post?  Its failure to alert immediately federal authorities to the practices captured on their video only prolonged — almost even condoned — an illegal, inhumane practice and needlessly complicated the subsequent federal investigation.  But why?

 

Timing is everything in public relations, and if you are hoping to make big headlines, your timing, and the messages you’re hoping catch fire, are as polished as Sunday’s silverware before being put before the public.  HSUS President Wayne Pacelle, in an interview with the New York Times, noted that when he added the food supply angle to the animal abuse story, it produced an enormous, irresistible news hook for the hungry press.  Commenting on the food safety allegations made during the breaking of the story, Pacelle noted, “It certainly added another dimension to the story. This story has been huge!”

 

And the fifth, and final failure took place when the USDA issued the nation’s largest recall, when, in the words of its own Secretary,  “there is no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with (the) beef.”   The recall elevated an animal handling issue into a full blown food safety scare, and American consumers and our foreign trading partners were needlessly alarmed and understandably confused by the anomaly of this large recall of safe products.  

 

Products that were produced over two years ago and have never been shown to cause human illness are being recalled off the shelves.  In the face of higher food prices in America, the ongoing need for food donations to help feed the hungry, and the rationing of food aid through international relief organizations, it’s dumfounding to see the specter of hundreds of millions of pounds of safe food being destroyed.   See http://www.drudgereport.com/

 

Some might call a failure on five levels a quintastrophy.  But although a picture — or video in this case — might speak volumes, actions speak louder than words.  And the actions to ensure that this kind of multiple failure never happens again are underway, right now, by an industry that strives for self improvement and continues to produce the safest, highest quality and most affordable meat products in the world.

 

J. Patrick Boyle is the President and CEO of the American Meat Institute (AMI).  AMI, founded in 1906, represents America’s meat and poultry processors and packers.

 

 

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