The United States has ordered the largest recall of beef in its history following the release of video footage showing downed cattle – a term used to describe animals who collapse and are too ill to stand back up – being abused on their way to a Californian meat processing plant.
Such animals are known to pose a major health risk if eaten. Illnesses that cause cattle to collapse in this way include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The recall of an estimated 143m pounds of beef – enough to feed two hamburgers to every man, woman and child in the US – is largely symbolic because most, if not all, has already been consumed.
Still, it is a colossal embarrassment for a government administration manifestly incapable of spotting gross public health and animal welfare violations at one of the country's largest meat suppliers. It is an equally large embarrassment for Congress, which has failed to pass laws to keep all downed cattle out of the food chain.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: "Consumers are losing confidence in [the govern-ment's] ability to ensure the meat they eat is safe. Once again, United States Department of Agriculture is in reactive mode – taking steps to protect the public long after a highly publicised animal welfare scandal.
"Where were the inspectors who should have been preventing downed cattle from entering the food supply? Where were the safeguards to make sure that meat from sick animals didn't end up on school lunch trays from coast to coast?"
About 37m pounds of the recalled meat was used to feed children under a federal school lunch programme for poor families. Much of the rest went to two fast-food outlets – Jack In The Box and In N Out Burger. All have now switched to other suppliers.
The scandal surrounding the Westland/Hallmark meat packing plant in Chino, east of Los Angeles, erupted at the end of last month when the US Humane Society publicised footage of workers kicking downed cows, jabbing them in the eyes, ramming them with a forklift truck and using power hoses to get them to stand up and enter a box used for slaughter.
Downed cows are also prone to contamination or infection from animal faeces, elevating the risk of E.coli, salmonella and other potentially fatal food-borne illnesses. The Humane Society said it was concerned about the health risk – noting that at least 12 of the 15 documented cases of mad cow disease to surface in North America involved downed animals – but also about the treatment of the animals, which it said was "right out of the waterboarding manual".
One week after the Humane Society released its video, the Department of Agriculture closed the Westland/Hallmark plant. Last Friday, the local district attorney in San Bernardino County brought criminal charges against two meat packing workers.
Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president, applauded the recall, saying it sent an unmistakable message to other meat processing companies.
"A recall of this staggering scale shows it's bad for animals, bad for consumers and bad for business to have slipshod enforcement and porous laws when it comes to handling animals at slaughter plants," he said.
The Department of Agriculture had no immediate response to the criticism but said it was not aware of anyone falling ill as a result of eating the meat.