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Are dairymen responsible when meat recalls occur?

Dave Wilkins Published on 30 June 2014

A massive beef recall linked to the processing of cull dairy cows at a California slaughterhouse appears to be an isolated case in which the federal meat inspection system failed, industry participants say.

Earlier this year, the USDA issued a recall of nearly nine million pounds of beef produced at the Rancho Feeding Corp. plant in Petaluma, California. The recall amounted to a full year’s worth of production at the plant that was later shut down.

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The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says the beef was processed without the “full benefit” of federal inspection and therefore must be considered “unwholesome and unfit for human consumption.”

An investigation by CNN found that the slaughterhouse was processing diseased dairy cows when federal inspectors weren’t there – a serious violation of USDA-FSIS regulations. After the cows were killed, employees would hide the warning signs of cancer by trimming off diseased parts, using a fake stamp of approval or even replacing the heads of sick cows with ones from healthy animals, the network reported.

According to government documents obtained by CNN, federal investigators determined that the plant had shipped “adulterated and misbranded product,” and had failed to inspect cattle that were likely affected with epithelioma (cancer) of the eye.

If that wasn’t enough, one of the government inspectors was also having an affair with a plant foreman, the network reported.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the USDA launched an internal investigation. FSIS officials say they are working with the USDA’s Office of Inspector General and were unable to comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

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The apparent misconduct at the plant is not representative of the federal meat inspection system as a whole, industry participants say.

“I think we have a pretty good system,” says Christopher Booth, a dairy veterinarian from Plymouth, Wisconsin, and the current president of the Wisconsin Veterinarian Medical Association.

“It’s not like the overall system needs a whole revamp. It’s just that in that situation there was unfortunately a breakdown in the established protocol for whatever reason,” he says.

What happened at Rancho Feeding Corp. is inexcusable, says Rod Bowling, a former vice president of research/development and quality assurance at Monfort Meat Packing Co.

“There is no way an inspector should leave his or her post and not be there when cattle are slaughtered,” he says. “It’s just not the way it’s done.”

These problems demonstrate a violation of well-established protocols honored by government and industry, Bowling says. He holds a Ph.D. in meat science from Texas A&M and now works as an industry consultant, advising clients on food safety issues. His company, AgriFood Solutions International, is based in College Station, Texas.

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Bowling reminds dairy producers that USDA meat inspection was established in 1907 in response to the consumer outrage created by Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle.” The regulations were written to identify and remove diseased animals from meat intended for human consumption; consequently, USDA/FSIS meat inspection has always been paid for by general revenue funds from tax dollars.

The disease containment measures promulgated by those regulations worked very effectively, and many endemic cattle diseases were eliminated from U.S. livestock populations as a result.

Bowling states, “This system is recognized and copied by governments all over the world; it is strong, it is effective, and it works until dishonest people subvert the system for personal gain. Those who flaunt the system wrong everyone involved in the production and consumption scenario – cattlemen, retailers and consumers.”

While dairy farmers supplied cull cows to the Rancho plant, there is no indication that they bear any responsibility for what happened.

“This was a failure of local USDA meat inspection,” Bowling says.

It’s not illegal under most circumstances to ship diseased livestock to a slaughter plant. After all, most livestock producers aren’t veterinarians, and there are plenty of bovine diseases that could afflict a cow without showing obvious symptoms.

It’s the job of federal inspectors to determine whether the animals are fit for slaughter and whether the carcasses are fit for the U.S. food supply.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act clearly states all livestock must be inspected both before and after slaughter.

Federal inspectors are supposed to observe all animals at rest and in motion. They’re trained to look for abnormalities and signs that could indicate disease or health conditions that would prohibit them from entering the food supply.

Carcass-by-carcass inspections are conducted to spot any signs of disease or pathological conditions that would render a carcass or part of it unwholesome or otherwise unfit for human consumption.

Does this mean livestock producers have no responsibility at all for food safety?

Producers do play a role.

For starters, producers shouldn’t ship cattle to slaughter if the animals aren’t able to get on a truck under their own power or there’s a high likelihood they will die in transit. Euthanasia may be the humane option in such situations.

Beyond that, it’s in every dairyman’s economic interest to limit disease in the entire herd, including culled cows.

There are many diseases or health conditions that can result in the condemnation of live cattle or carcasses at the slaughterhouse.

Tuberculosis, leptospirosis, grass tetany, epithelioma of the eye and anaplasmosis or yellow fever are just a few of the diseases that can result in rejection.

“Tuberculosis is on the rise in our cull dairy cows,” Bowling says.

Many of the TB-infected cows now in the U.S. dairy herd were probably imported from Mexico or Canada as heifers during the BSE scare of a few years ago, he says. There’s also a pocket of TB-infected dairy cattle that likely contracted the disease from deer in the state of Michigan.

Acute inflammatory lameness is another condition that can result in rejection at the slaughterhouse. Federal regulations require that all non-ambulatory disabled cattle be condemned.

Most dairymen are probably aware of the undercover videos that have been recorded by animal rights activists in recent years.

One video shot a few years ago at the Westland/Hallmark slaughter plant in California showed employees dragging or pushing “downer” dairy cows to slaughter with chains and forklifts.

Those actions were clearly inhumane and a violation of FSIS regulations. Cull cows that are so lame that they are unable to walk should not be shipped to beef processing plants in the first place, experts say.

“One of the things dairymen have to work on is the soundness of their cows,” Bowling says.

“I don’t think we’re getting more than three or four gestations out of a cow anymore. So many of them become lame, it’s really a problem,” he says.

Obviously, the primary focus on dairy farms is milk production, so there has been much less emphasis placed on beef quality.

The percentage of overall dairy farm income derived from the sale of cull cows can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the price of milk, beef, etc., but on average, it’s been less than 10 percent.

In Idaho, cull cow revenue has historically ranged from 3 percent to 9 percent of total farm sales, and that’s in line with most other states, says C. Wilson Gray, an extension agricultural economist with the University of Idaho.

Dairymen do have an incentive to maintain a certain level of quality when it comes to cull cows. Under most beef contracts, producers are not paid for cattle condemned at slaughter.

“Packers trace their condemnations, and most of them do not stand condemnation loss,” Bowling says. “If your cow is condemned, she’s gone.”

Dairymen can limit condemnation at the slaughterhouse by paying attention to overall herd health.

“We just need to continue to do our best to prevent as much disease occurrence or lameness as we can,” Booth says.

“If we can manage these animals well, then we can cull cows on a voluntary basis,” he says. “We can cull cows that we want to cull because of low production or failed reproduction, not necessarily because they are sick. I think it all starts with preventing the illnesses to begin with.”

Another critical part of the dairyman’s role is to carefully follow all the withdrawal and withhold times for meat based on whatever pharmaceutical products or therapies are being used.

“Dairymen should be working closely with their veterinarians and their teams on the farm to make sure there is a good record system in place,” Booth says. “We need to make sure we’re applying therapies appropriately and then tracking those therapies so we can follow appropriate withholding times for marketing those animals.” PD

Dave Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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