We all could pay price for bad actors (commentary)

We all could pay price for bad actors (commentary)

THIS is going to be a column about old, spent dairy cows — again. I wrote my first for Feedstuffs in January 2013. It was about cull cows in general but, more specifically, about old, spent dairy cows.

It was about what happened at Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. and other locations where activists' undercover videos were painting a very dark picture of the American beef industry. It called for industry-led reform and action.

Now, Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, Cal., is back in the headlines after a supposed exposé by CNN on its "Eatocracy" blog.

Most readers will remember that Rancho recalled nearly 9 million lb. of beef from thousands of stores during early 2014.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was bad meat — tainted beef "unfit for human food" — but offered no further explanation other than to say a criminal investigation was underway.

People were outraged, calling for transparency, etc.

During the Hallmark debacle, I was sitting where acting USDA undersecretary for food safety Brian Ronholm sits today. We both had Al Almanza as our administrator supervising the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service investigations, and we both had USDA's Office of the Inspector General independently pursuing the truth.

I know why those gentlemen refused to comment. They were blocked by the legal hurdles of wanting to see justice done. I wish people could get over that.

Now, someone at the federal level who claims to be in the know has leaked information to CNN that describes egregious, criminal, wanton acts of deception that, if true, should result in jail time.

By now, I am sure you have read those allegations, and since I do not know their source or validity, I will not repeat them.

The point I want to drive home is the same one I talked about more than a year ago in my blog: Old, spent dairy cows are a risk — a liability — to the integrity of the entire beef industry.

If half of what CNN is reporting is true, more and more parents will turn away from ground beef for their children's source of protein. This will cause tremors up and down the beef food chain.

The trim for a 24-month-old steer will have to find a new partner for the finished product, just like it did when Beef Products Inc. was brought down by "pink slime."

Does what CNN describes imply an increased food safety risk, you might ask? Perhaps not, but lean finely textured beef was no food safety risk either; it was just maximizing the amount of meat captured per critter.

Is the consumption of meat from a spent dairy cow a food safety risk? Probably not; it is just an attempt to get the last bit of product at the end of her life into the food chain.

Cull cows present undercover video opportunities for those who don't want anyone consuming meat. Cull cows do present some increased risk for food safety. Cull cows do show up in the National School Lunch Program and in thousands of processed products. That is why the Hallmark and Rancho recalls were so large.

Those large numbers scare people and make them less trusting of the entire beef supply chain.

Something needs to be done besides trying to claim that those were isolated instances. While that may be the case, the footage is disgusting and gets headlines.

Maybe USDA, with the industry's help, could convince Congress to allot more funds for more inspectors at cull cow plants. It certainly seems that is where the greatest risk to the industry lies and where activist groups focus their efforts and dollars to bring down the industry.

We already lost lean finely textured beef. Now, we could lose meat from cull cows, as I said in January 2013.

I always hated it when employees came to me and said, "We have a problem," because it really meant, "Dr. Raymond, you have a problem."

To that, I say to the meat and milk industry: We don't have a problem. You have a problem.

To quote animal science professor Dr. Temple Grandin, "Fix it, or lose it."

This whole recurring bad dream scenario reminds me of a Rolling Stones song from back in the day when I delivered babies, not blogs:

"This could be the last time; Maybe the last time, I don't know; Oh no, Oh no; Well I told you once and I told you twice; That someone will have to pay the price."

Will Rancho be the last time? Will a law pointed at two bad actors take down the good with the bad?

I don't want to be the one to "pay the price" in the form of higher costs for beef products because of the bad actors in the industry.

If the industry doesn't take care of this, some member of Congress who needs a feel-good bill for re-election will. He or she may propose not letting old cows into slaughter facilities at all, and he or she will dredge up Hallmark videos and Rancho testimonies to support the proposal.

Then, indeed, we will all "pay the price."

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.

Volume:86 Issue:19

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