In my opinion, the events at the meat packing plant became a media sensation largely for two reasons. The most obvious reason, which should have been the leading idea behind the press coverage, was that workers (and thus, the entire plant) broke the law. The Hallmark plant violated USDA rules regarding the treatment of downer cattle (animals that arrive at the slaughter plant but cannot stand up because of an illness or injury). According to the USDA website, while all cattle at the plant passed ante mortem inspection before slaughter, the company did not consistently contact the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Public Health Veterinarian in situations where the cattle became non-ambulatory after they has passed ante mortem inspection (in order for the vets to make a case by case evaluation).
The second reason for the downpour of media attention was that this story touches on two topics that are extremely effective in rallying public outrage: animal abuse and the safety of children. Certain media sources saw a chance for can’t-ignore, eye-catching headlines, and took it.
As a member of the media, it might seem as though I’m attacking my own here. I’m all for catchy headlines and great stories, but I’m also a big supporter of the food industry and, more importantly, the truth.
To begin with, this recall was a “Class II” action. This means that there is only a remote possibility of adverse health effects if the meat is consumed. To date, there is not one single reported illness linked to beef from this recall (and a large portion of the recalled meat has been consumed), a fact that seemed to be buried six paragraphs deep in most of the stories.
The risk of illness from eating the recalled meat is so minuscule, that it is negligible. The USDA has a multi-step program in place to safeguard our country’s meat supply. The ban on downer cattle is just one precaution out of many. Other Bovine spongiform encephalopathy security measures include a feed ban that prohibits feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants and an ongoing BSE surveillance program designed to identify any rise in BSE prevalence in U.S. cattle. As far as E. coli is concerned, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has independent laboratories testing every production lot of ground beef. In this case, not one positive result was found from Hallmark Meat.
Even IF one of the processed downer cattle had been infected with BSE, if processed correctly, meat products from infected cattle should not themselves be infected or cause a threat to public health. This is because all the tissues containing the BSE infectious agent reside in the brain, spinal cord and small intestines of the cow – and are all removed from the carcass at slaughter.
So it seems to me that most of these sensationalist cries of dangerous meat are really much ado about nothing.
Despite this, the meat industry will still suffer. Months ago, Topps Meat Company recalled close to 22 million pounds of frozen hamburger, eventually shutting its door permanently. The Hallmark recall involves (at last count) 143 million pounds of meat. School districts have now gone as far as to remove beef entirely from their lunch menus. Animal rights groups have taken this opportunity to offer copies of "Vegetarian Starter Kits" free to students. With today’s internet-savvy generation, there is no doubt that school-aged children have seen the undercover video from the Hallmark Meat plant, and it doesn’t surprise me that activist groups would use this opportunity to tug on the heartstrings of children and convince them that eating meat is “murder.”
What it comes down to is that we should not let one extreme, isolated instance get blown out of proportion and spoil an entire industry. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported close to 15 million auto recalls last year – and defective cars can definitely be life threatening – yet we still continue to buy and drive cars. To suggest anything else would be ludicrous – just as it would be to suggest that one incident with no reported illnesses should be enough to change the eating and buying habits of American consumers. Today’s consumers are smart and well-informed, and hopefully that will lead them to see the truth in this matter and take it for what it was – one unfortunate situation that will not be repeated.