In the wake of the largest recall of beef in U.S. history, many questions need to be asked regarding the U.S. Department of Agriculture's role as a food-safety gatekeeper.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., who heads the House subcommittee responsible for the USDA's funding, says the problem stems from the USDA's dual responsibilities as promoter of the nation's agricultural products and food safety regulator. The mandates, DeLauro says, have become blurred.
At the very least, there are a number of instances in which established processes between inspectors and meat packing plant owners apparently failed. Government inspectors reportedly were not notified of problems, which resulted in the government taking action only after the meat was in grocery stores or had been consumed.
It should be noted, however, of the 143 million pounds of beef being recalled nationwide, no one known to have consumed it has fallen ill yet. In Utah, 300,000 pounds of questionable ground beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in California purchased for school lunch programs will be destroyed. The recall resulted from the release of a videotape by an undercover Humane Society employee that showed downed cattle being forced from the ground with forklifts and electrical shocks and into the slaughterhouse. The USDA discourages processing downed cattle because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease, but they may be slaughtered with the approval of a USDA inspector.
In light of this issue, the federal government may want to reconsider that policy. Incidents of mad cow disease are extremely rare, so it is unlikely the downer cattle captured on the Humane Society video posed a health risk. But it shakes public confidence in the food supply and the government's ability to ensure beef is safe.
DeLauro may be on the right track. Perhaps slaughter and meat packing ought to be inspected by another arm of the government. Whatever regulatory agency is at the helm, established regulations must be followed to a "T" by regulators and industry representatives alike. American consumers deserve better than beef recalls that occur after products enter the marketplace or, worse, public school and institutional nutrition programs. This sort of breakdown cannot be tolerated.