New Alliances: Food Safety and Animal Welfare Organizations Join Forces to Demand Change

This past February, the nation saw the largest recall of meat in American history. More than140 million pounds of frozen ground beef slaughtered by the Hallmark Meat Packing Corporation in the last two years and supplied to Westland Meat Company was recalled after an undercover Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) video revealed evidence of widespread mistreatment of “downed” cattle. Hallmark employees were seen attempting to force downed cattle to slaughter by kicking them, applying electrical shocks, battering them with the blades of forklifts, and jabbing them in the eyes. In addition to outrage over inhumane treatment, the video raised the alarm of food safety organizations, as downed cattle are more likely to be infected with foodborne pathogens. Such concerns were heightened by the disclosure that Westland Meat Company was a supplier to the National School Lunch Program and commercial outlets.

In this case, researchers, advocates and policy makers concerned about public health, food safety and animal rights worked together to expose and seek to correct a situation that they believed violated food safety rules, animal rights and basic public health principles.On February 20, 2008, one day after the the United States Department of Agriculture announced the recall of Hallmark/Westland beef, seven food safety and animal rights organizations wrote a joint letter to USDA Secretary Ed Schafer urging the department to list the retail recipients of the Hallmark/Westland meat to better inform consumers about the recall. These organizations, Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention; Center for Science in the Public Interest; Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union; Food & Water Watch; Government Accountability Project and Safe Tables Our Priority [S.T.O.P.], further urged Schafer to enforce a rule proposed in March 2006 that would allow the agency to list retail consignees on USDA press releases. Though the rule had widespread consumer support it has not been approved.

The seven organizations argued that the public had a right to know to which retail outlets Westland had distributed the meat. Consumers Union issued a press release on February 28, 2008 stating that thanks to a 2007 law that Consumers Union (CU) helped to pass, the State of California had published the names of retailers that had carried the recalled Hallmark/Westland meat. However, because USDA had not taken action to approve changes to its internal policies regarding recall disclosure, consumers outside of the California received no such information. “Recalled meat was shipped beyond California’s borders, and because of USDA’s continuing secrecy about the names of the retailers, consumers in other states have no way of knowing if they purchased any of the recalled beef,” CU argued. The organization located the recent recall in a series of food safety failures that CU including bacterial contamination of chicken and the rise of beef contaminated with E Coli and suggested the incidents cumulatively suggested a “gaping hole in the food safety net.”

CSPI, an organization with a long history of fighting for the release such information from the USDA, argued that the USDA’s obscuring the names of retail establishments that received recalled beef “creates confusion by suggesting that recalled products do not reach consumers. In fact, the bulk

Protecting Industry at the Expense of Public Health and Safety

When the USDA published January 2004 regulations on   Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) following the first U.S. case in December of 2003, the agency claimed that all meat from downed cattle would be prohibited from entering the food supply. However, following publication of the regulations, the agency issued Notice 5-04 which instructed inspecting veterinarians to allow those downed cattle which appeared healthy and whose nonambulatory status was the result of an injury rather than illness. Food safety organizations, researchers and other experts on BSE immediately took issue with the loophole arguing that because illness may predispose livestock to injury, and because the exact cause of an animal’s nonambulatory state is difficult to ascertain, all downed animals should be prohibited from slaughter for food. In written comments to the USDA, former USDA senior staff veterinarian Linda Detwiler stated, “I urge the USDA to not alter this definition and to continue to prohibit for food any bovine which cannot walk to the ‘knock box’ [area of slaughter] regardless of reason.”

Following a period of public comment, an analysis by the Humane Society illustrated that although trade associations publicly supported the regulations following the 2003 BSE case, behind the scenes these organizations worked to weaken the ban to allow for slaughter those cattle which cannot walk from injury rather than illness.

Strategic Alliances, Flexible Coalitions

Beyond working together to publicize the HSUS findings and demand that consumers have access to a full list of Hallmark/Westland retail distributions, humane treatment and food safety organizations made other alliances in the Hallmark/Westland case.

Following the HSUS investigation, Food & Water Watch published information on their website about the longstanding problems with understaffing and unfilled meat inspector vacancies at the USDA. Food & Water Watch learned from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that the vacancy rate for FDA inspectors at the Alameda district in California, where Hallmark is located, was 11.33% at the end of FY 2007 and that inspectors at the Hallmark site were instructed that they should not enter the pens because a FSIS veterinarian would conduct all of the human handling checks. In a letter to USDA Secretary Schafer of the USDA, Food and Water Executive Director Wenonah Hauter and Stan Painter, President of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals argued: “In slaughter plants with inspector shortages or vacancies” plant employees know there is no chance that a government official will be able to visit the pens to do any checks, until the slaughter line is stopped. This would give company employees plenty of notice to halt behaviors that violate regulations, before any government official reaches the pens.”

Weeks after the video release, HSUS posted a series of comments and letters from religious leaders around the country responding to the Hallmark/Westland case. Comments posted by HSUS illustrate that religious leaders were concerned both by the inhumane treatment of downed cows and food safety. Religious leaders emphasized the interconnectedness of life and the inconsistency between cruelty to animals and core Judeo-Christian values. Some also pointed to the importance of eating a vegetarian diet and highlighted environmental concerns associated with factory farming. Others argued for greater corporate and regulatory accountability. Brother David Andrews, Coordinator for Justice and Peace Congregation of Holy Cross stated that food companies needed to “take notice, to review their practices and to ensure that the animals in their care are treated humanely. Citizens need to be demanding that the entire food and dairy system be reviewed with an examination of the guarantees that need to be in place to protect animals from treatment evidenced by this shocking example, more than lip service or verbal assurances are needed.”

These alliances between food safety, animal welfare, labor and religious leaders, facilitated in large part by the internet and “net roots” organizing, demonstrate the potential for broad-based coalitions that can challenge inhumane and health harming corporate practices and demand a stronger regulatory system.

Each of the participating organizations has framed issue in slightly different terms. HSUS and Food and Water Watch primarily focus on the inhumane treatment suffered by downed cows but also emphasize the food safety issues associated with processing such cattle for slaughter. Food and Water watch has worked to expose the food safety, animal welfare, environmental and economic effects of factory farming which leads to conditions such as downed cattle. CSPI and Consumers Union/Consumer Reports, while touching upon humane treatment issues, focus largely upon the rights of consumers to healthful food and a stronger food safety system. What these differing emphases share is a moral stance that contrasts with the meat industry’s position that the industry itself is best suited to regulate its own behavior, a perspective challenged by the video images.

By working collectively to demand a common bottom line such coalitions – even when temporary – can mobilize broader constituencies for change. At the same time, by framing the issue in slightly different terms, the organizations maintain an independent focus on different areas of expertise. Moreover, the groups have different tactical and strategic repertoires, such as HSUS’ undercover operations or CSPI’s use of lawsuits, enabling the coalition to operate on a variety of fronts.

Moving Forward

In addition to raising concerns about the failing of the nation’s food safety inspection system, a situation that puts the health of American public and especially children and other vulnerable groups at risk, the Hallmark/Westland case also revealed the productive capacity of coalition work between humane treatment/animal rights and food safety organizations to change health harming corporate practices. One reason why these alliances seem to work is that while the animal welfare organizations highlight their opposition to cruelty to animals, including the fate suffered by factory farmed animals, and discuss a vegetarian lifestyle, they take a more moderate position than animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

While alliances may be difficult where there are differences along ideological lines, the Hallmark/Westland case illustrates the potential for broader coalitions that might have broader application for other issues. For example Food and Water Watch’s work touches upon environmental and labor issues pertaining to factory farming and that group’s letter to USDA Secretary Ed Schafer was coauthored by the President of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. Working closely with environmental and labor organizations could strengthen the demand for greater food safety regulations, reduce the environmental impact of farming, and improve working conditions and humane treatment of animals.

Following the Hallmark/Westland expose, two Hallmark employees were charged in California courts for the actions captured by HSUS. While such charges may deter some future violations, these two employees were likely operating under the direction of Hallmark, which seemingly had a vested interest in getting downed cattle to slaughter. Improving conditions for farm animals would require a reconfiguration of the factory farming system. For instance, the HSUS reports that improved bedding and surface area could cut the number of downed cattle by up to 90%. However, the best footing for cows (sand) is also much harder to move and to clean than concrete floors, which are currently used. Unfortunately industry seems unlikely to make changes that would be considered cost prohibitive but would result in healthier cattle and ultimately increased food safety. Under the current administration, the USDA seems unwilling to pass rules and regulations which would favor public health and safety when they conflict with industry positions. By including labor rights, food safety and animal welfare organizations in these emerging coalitions, advocates can help to refocus attention back on industry and away from the actions of a few employees who will be held up as exceptions to the rule. When such coalitions can successfully pose an alternative approach to assuring food safety and animal protection, they can begin to mobilize the political support needed to implement these alternatives.