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The Beef Angle

Beef Plant Undercover Video Tied to Dairy Cow Management

The latest animal rights video poses significant questions about the dairy industry's commitment to beef quality assurance and animal welfare.

Here we go again: another beef processing plant shuttered in response to a undercover animal abuse video. Harkening back to the Hallmark/Westland debacle of 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture shut down the Central Valley Meat Company of Hanford, Calif. Monday, taking “aggressive action to investigate and respond to disturbing evidence of inhumane treatment of cattle” at the facility.

This situation, as with the Hallmark/Westland case, provides three lessons:

-       Cull cow facilities, not fed beef plants, are the weak link in the beef processing chain

-       Dairymen need to get their house in order relative to culling decisions and beef quality

-       The animal rights lobby will continue to exploit school lunch program suppliers

First things first, let’s identify the problem. Cull cow facilities are clearly the main sources of problem with animal handling and humane treatment issues in the beef processing industry.

Perhaps its because the vast majority of fed-cattle slaughter facilities have been designed over the past 30 years by folks like Temple Grandin focused on animals’ well-being and proper handling techniques, or perhaps its because young beef animals simply provide fewer handling challenges… either way, the cull cow plants are the festering abscess of the industry at this point.

Clearly I am not the only person who realizes this, as animal rights groups like Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals continue to send their undercover operatives to gain employment and film footage of poor handling and animal abuses as seen in the Central Valley and Hallmark/Westland videos.

I’m not linking to the COK video here but I have watched it, and can tell you that what this video depicts is a far, far cry from the footage of Cargill fed-beef plant Oprah Winfrey’s cameras filmed in early 2011 (read more about Cargill’s experiences with Oprah here and here).

Following Hallmark/Westland, USDA essentially prohibited the slaughter of non-ambulatory “downer” animals for public consumption, and understandably so. Much of the abuse at the Chino plant stemmed from improper handling of animals that couldn’t walk to the kill box.

Specifically, according to the Food Safety Inspection Service: USDA food safety regulations state that, if an animal is non-ambulatory disabled at any time prior to slaughter, it must be condemned promptly, humanely euthanized, and properly discarded so that it does not enter the food supply.

Law of unintended consequences: if you can’t slaughter non-ambulatory animals, cull plants like Central Valley have an “incentive,” if you will, to get animals prone to becoming non-ambulatory processed either before they become non-ambulatory, or out of sight of the federal inspector, both of which lead to either willful abuse, or abuse stemming from basic negligence.

What’s the dairy industry’s role in this situation? It is clear from the video shot at Central Valley, as well as from the Hallmark/Westland video of 2008, that a significant number of the cull cows going through these facilities are spent dairy cows, many of which are clearly dealing with issues of lameness trending toward a non-ambulatory disposition.

Taken a step further, let me be blunt: the dairy industry needs to clean up its act in regard to management of cull cows and beef quality assurance.

Setting aside Central Valley and Hallmark/Westland for a moment, consider the most recent edition of the National Beef Quality Audit, released at this summer’s Beef Industry Summer Conference in Denver (Feedstuffs, July 30). Among seven “barriers” to continued progress in Beef Quality Assurance, the audit described a “disconnect” with the dairy sector of the beef supply.

“Though 9.9% of carcasses were from dairy animals, based on Phase II research, fewer than half (44.4%) of dairy respondents had attended an educational program that taught BQA principles,” the report notes. Drug withdrawal times and residue issues were mentioned specifically as one quality assurance issue, aside from the non-ambulatory cull cow problem.

Responding to the Central Valley video on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, animal care expert Dr. Dave Daley, associate dean for the College of Agriculture at California State University, noted the importance of strong BQA adherence.

“The vast majority of cattlemen stand firm in adhering to the absolute best animal care and handling guidelines established by veterinarians and other experts,” Daley said. “This is exactly why the farmer and rancher code of conduct within Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) has been in place since 1996 and condemns the mistreatment of animals. We believe any individual who witnesses inappropriate animal treatment is responsible for making every effort to stop it immediately.”

To illustrate the conundrum presented by a beef processing industry essentially hung out to dry by a dairy industry apparently disengaged or disinterested in the beef animal they send to slaughter, I’ll reference two well-worn clichés: Firstly, we’re all in this together, and secondly, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Dairy producers have to take a more serious approach to Beef Quality Assurance in general, and cull cow management specifically. When dairies send cows to processing facilities on the very verge of being non-ambulatory, or with serious drug residue issues, the beef sector generally takes the hit because the meat is a beef product, not a dairy product. The consumer does not distinguish one from another – the beef producer is blamed for the poor management practices of the dairyman.

Animal rights activists will continue to exploit suppliers of the school lunch program, with good reason. The reason? It works.

Hallmark/Westland, Central Valley, and don’t forget, “Pink Slime.” What do all three major beef industry scandals have in common? The anti-meat lobby used the national school lunch program as leverage to put beef processors out of business.

Hallmark/Westland went out of business, and perhaps rightfully so given the animal abuses documented there. Beef Products, Inc. went from being a major player in the production of lean beef trim to cutting more than 600 jobs and shutting down three major production facilities following the outcry of thousands of moms terrified little Timmy and little Susie were going to be exposed to the evils of Pink Slime in their school lunches.

Among the first things mentioned by Compassion Over Killing in its denouncement of Central Valley was its tie to the school lunch program. Don’t be surprised when Central Valley shuts its doors for good (again, perhaps rightfully so – I’m reserving judgment until USDA completes its investigation… innocent until proven guilty is still the rule of law in this country, after all, even if not in the court of public opinion).

During my reporting on the Pink Slime debacle, I chatted with the Head of Texas A&M’s Department of Animal Science, professor Russell Cross. Cross and I chatted about the various issues exposed by the situation, and he posed a very serious suggestion: the meat industry needs to consider what other skeletons may be laying in the closet and get them out in the light of day, now.

In other words, what are the “Top 5” things the animal rights/anti-meat lobby could use on television and the internet to further alienate consumers from the people and businesses who produce meat? I submit that I’ve probably outlined a couple of big ones already.

Here’s a bonus prediction: mark my words, far too many of my friends and colleagues in the social media sphere will turn this story into another scathing critique of the animal rights industry. The footage submitted to USDA was obtained by a COK operative over two weeks in June, according to their public statements, yet wasn’t submitted to the Department until last Friday, basically two months later.

To many in agriculture, this is another “smoking gun” that the animal rights lobby doesn’t actually care about the animals, but only about scoring points in the media toward forcing consumers away from meat and into a vegan lifestyle. This is probably true.

Even so, it doesn’t matter: there is clearly a problem – still – in the meat production industry relative to animal care and handling, and it may just take the media scrutiny of an animal rights undercover video to get the right people off their duffers and taking action.

Beef producers need to continue demanding better from every sector of the production chain: from cow/calf to dairy to the slaughterhouse, these animals deserve to be treated humanely and provided a stress-free death. The industry should accept nothing less.

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