Tuesday, February 19, 2008

There's been a massive meat recall of 144 million pounds - the largest in history, we're told. Evidently, this was sparked by secret video taken of downer cows - cows too sickly to even stand - being prodded into the abattoir and thus into the nation's meat supply. Two slaughter house employees are being prosecuted for animal cruelty.

I'm glad of the recall in that downer cows are prohibited from human consumption for a reason. The risk that those animals were suffering from some disease that can be passed along to humans is real (if also not really likely). For our health, the recall was the right thing to do. When the rules are broken, and the evidence of such is incontrovertible, the consequences should be clear and immediate. Also good. The employees caught on tape definitely fit my definition of illegal cruelty. Their prosecution is right.

So why am I uncomfortable? It took me awhile to comprehend my feelings of uneasiness over this recall, and especially the two employees being prosecuted. Here's the problem as I see it: This massive recall over downer cattle being put into the meat strongly implies that the meat that hasn't been recalled is free of the remains of downer cattle. Yet we know that's not true. In fact, animal groups have been talking about the problem of downer cattle for years. This incident the Humane Society caught on tape is almost definitely a fairly commonplace occurrence. This recall suggests that any tinge of downer cattle is being scrupulously purged from the nation's meat supply. The American consumer is being conned.

Sending the two employees to jail is a bit like jailing the grunts who abused prisoners at Abu Graib. The higher ups may not have ordered their cruelty directly, they may not have even expected it (though I believe they did), but they certainly created a culture and circumstances and possibly even incentives that encouraged the cruelty to take place. The two are guilty, but they're also scapegoats, whose prosecution decreases the chances of addressing the bigger problem.

I know this recall is a win for animal welfare and human safety. But I'm not in the mood for celebrating just yet...

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