Once again, industrial agriculture has shown its ugly face, this time, putting millions of kids at risk.
Prompted by a disturbing video showing the abuse of “downer” cows (cows that cannot walk due to disease or injury) at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Ca, the USDA issued a recall of 143 million lbs. of beef, the largest in history. According to the USDA, 37 million pounds of the company’s beef was shipped out to feed more than 30 million kids that participate in the National School Lunch Program.
This is surely a bad situation, but the worst part is that the recall came nearly three weeks after the video surfaced, long after most of the beef had already been eaten.
When I first heard about the recall, I felt sick to my stomach. Not because I was worried that I had eaten some tainted meat, but because it reminded me that we depend on a food system that places animals, produce, and the health of the very people that depend on it at risk. For example, in less than three years, the number of recalls has increased more than 400%. There were five recalls in 2005, eight in 2006, and a whopping 21 in 2007. It is also worth noting that in 2007, 66 “suspensions” were issued, 12 of which were for “egregious humane handling violations.”
But the most disturbing aspect of this latest incident is that it reveals that the least fortunate and most vulnerable among us bear the brunt of a failed agricultural policy, and of a food system that Wendell Berry has said is devoid of any human values. In California, nearly half of its 6.3 million students qualify for the School Lunch Program, most of who are low-income and students of color. These students, and millions like them, are already statistically unlikely to have access to fresh food and produce at home because agricultural policy has created a food system that favors large agribusiness and discourages the small-scale production and distribution of local or even regional food free of chemicals and pesticides. So when these kids eat at school, they can’t even get a decent meal or have the option of having a salad or fresh fruit.
Problems with the current state of the food supply chain are obvious, but accountability for those problems is not. Is it the slaughterhouse workers’ fault, who in this case were fired? Is it the company whose bottom line depends on every cow being processed regardless of health? Is it the USDA that enforces a policy encouraging most of our food to come from just a few sources? Or, are we as consumers to blame for demanding large quantities of meat and food at artificially low prices - regardless of how it’s produced and how it finds its way to our plates?