Laws and Sausages


“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” -Otto van Bismark

What about laws about sausages?

On Monday night, the NYC Bar Association hosted a panel discussion—”Beef Recall Aftermath: Law Policy Implications For Regulation Of Farmed Animal Welfare And Food Safety”

Earlier this year, footage taken by an HSUS undercover investigator at the Hallmark/Westland meatpacking plant in California resulted in the largest beef recall in the U.S.—more than 143 million pounds of beef. Steve Bjerklie, a journalist who has been covering the Meat industry since the 1980s, noted this was at least four times the amount of any previous recall.

Why was this particular HSUS video so powerful? Andrew Martin, a food writer for the New York Times, wondered about this. He noted that while he’s received footage of abuses of chickens, he’s not sure what to do with it , what the story is and if it’s newsworthy, and is doubtful it will have the same impact as the images in the HSUS video:

Workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks and even torturing them with a hose and water in attempts to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.

What also struck a chord was that this company was a major supplier for the nation’s school lunch program. This was not only inhumane, but had food safety implications.

Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, discussed how he had footage in that same packing plant over 20 years ago with these abuses on downed animals, but back then, there was nothing illegal about it.

In December of 2003, when the first “mad” cow was discovered in the U.S., legislation was established to prevent the slaughter of downed cows for human consumption. Downed animals are an increased risk for disease and could have BSE, but downed doesn’t necessarily mean BSE and BSE could be found in animals who aren’t downed, but testing of cows is limited.

These downer cows are usually overworked, exhausted dairy cows, who have been repeatedly and forcefully impregnated, suffering the repeated loss of their young, and milked to their limits. Once they are no longer “useful” or “productive” they are sent to slaughter. Those who have been pushed too far and can no longer stand or walk are downers. The current law however has a loophole that doesn’t sufficiently prevent cows who have been forced on their feet to pass inspection or those who go down right after inspection from being slaughtered for human consumption. HSUS is looking to close that loophole with improved legislation and oversight. Interestingly enough, Steve Bjerklie said that the industry is now on board with that as well and doesn’t want downers entering the food supply. He mentioned that recall insurance has gotten very expensive. Mike Markarian of HSUS expressed that it makes economic sense for the industry too because recalls are expensive and it impacts export policies.

But this legislation only prevents downer cows from entering the human food supply. They can still be rendered for pet food, livestock feed, or other animal products. The industry can still “milk” these downed cows for all they are worth. It doesn’t address the cruelty in the dairy industry that is also responsible for downed conditions, or downers of others species of animals.

Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinary inspector, offered his perspectives on the challenges of regulating this industry and how abuses can go on undetected. Whether the USDA who promotes the industry should be regulating it was also discussed. Markarian felt the Office of the Inspector General, however, did seem to be independent in this process. Felicia Nestor from Food and Water Watch felt that the USDA was able to send a message to the industry through Hallmark/Westland, but probably would have been unable to do so to one of the bigger beef giants like Cargill or IBP, who are well stocked with lawyers.

The concept of using cameras in slaughterhouses came up. Steve Bjerklie said the industry has been long opposed to it. Labor organizations were the first to suggest it, because worker rights are a big concern. The industry also feels it would be a violation of trade secrets or business practices of how they achieve their production quantities. Andrew Martin didn’t think consumers wanted to see this footage. Gene Baur brought up the importance of the public knowing what the reality is which may be different from what peoplethink the reality to be.  Felicia Nestor felt the industry would find ways to work around the cameras, so they don’t document the abuses going on. Mike Markarian brought up the reference regarding laws and sausages being the two things no one wants to see get made, but then added, yet “we have C-Span”.

The evening ended with a question from the audience directed at the meat-eaters on the panel (all except Gene Baur and Mike Markarian), who all are intimately familiar with the goings on of meat production. She asked them, knowing what they know and what they’ve seen, how they could continue to eat meat.

Silence… No one responded.


~ by sangamithra on May 8, 2008.

2 Responses to “Laws and Sausages”

  1. Love this post. I really support the idea of slaughterhouse surveillance cameras. “SlaughterCams” would be an easy, cheap, fast, and highly effective mechanism of ensuring slaughterhouse accountability.

    Erik Marcus (author of Meat Market) talked about this idea on his blog:

  2. Thanks for the note!
    It would be great to have transparency in these operations.

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