Today's Downer -- "Grade D Beef, Unfit For Human Consumption..."

"...Except for Prisoners and Students"

"Grade D Beef, Unfit For Human Consumption (Except for Prisoners and Students)". That's an urban legend -- there is no such label, says But apparently there's a witness outside the loading zone of every college cafeteria who reports that workers are hauling in boxes labeled with this very dicey standard.1

It may be a funny story and an urban legend, but reading the news lately you wouldn't necessarily believe that the beef we're being served matches the USDA's quite delicious sounding quality ratings: "prime", "choice", "select", "standard" and "utility". (OK "utility" sounds a little iffy). The USDA bases the ratings on things like marbling and maturity grades, and for all the various grading parameters they employ, you'd hope that whatever ended up on your plate jived with the image you have of the happy cow in the grassy field, mouth full of clover and switchgrass -- an image that's widely dispersed by the beef industry. Unfortunately the Humane Society recently videotaped downed cattle being "urged" to slaughter, which swiftly and cruelly dispossessed us of our happy cow images.

The Humane Society sued the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) yesterday in an attempt to force the agency to close a loophole in beef slaughter guidelines. Last year the USDA loosened a 2004 regulation aimed at preventing diseased cows from entering the food chain. The USDA allows "downer" cows (ones that had fallen down and can't get up) into the food chain , if they have made it through an initial inspection then collapsed, but are subsequently examined and cleared by a veterinarian on call. Iffy. Apparently the veterinarians don't always get called.

Downed cows that can't walk themselves to the slaughter line are often not fit for human consumption because of disease -- especially what's commonly referred to as "mad-cow disease" -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). This is worrisome because BSE, the result of a prion infection, is fatal. BSE is infrequently transmitted to humans who eat the infected meat, where it manifests as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- also fatal.

The Humane Society filmed workers abusing cows at the Hallmark slaughter plant and released a video in January. The widely publicized video shows fallen cows being prodded, hosed, rolled and dragged to slaughter with farm equipment. The release of the video prompted the USDA to shut down the plant, which supplies Westland Meat Co. This was no doubt a blow to Westland, a company that in 2005 received USDA's Livestock and Seed Program Industry Recognition Award, for "Outstanding Performance and Commitment in the Production and Delivery of Quality Beef Products". Westland supplies the USDA's Commodity Procurement Branch providing meat to elder homes and schools and other organizations in 36 states. The USDA subsequently recalled 143 million pounds of ground beef.

Common-Sense Provisos

Most of the beef had already been eaten but the USDA assured diners that the health risks to humans were small. In the aftermath of the recall USDA accused the Humane Society of holding back its video evidence, an accusation that some found absurd. Rosa DeLauro, (D-CT) noted: "It is the height of irony that the U.S.D.A. is now trying to blame the whistle-blower for the agency's own irresponsible behavior."

The USDA tightened the rules in 2004 in response to several cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, but then last year loosened the rules when the meat industry complained that the mandates condemning non-ambulatory disabled cattle were too broad. Industry advocates wanted the USDA to allow cows downed after the initial inspection to be examined and possibly cleared by a veterinarian. Otherwise they reasoned, an non-diseased cow with a broken leg might be wasted.

A vice president from the American Meat Institute called the industry's request "a proviso founded in common sense." However the New York Times reports that 20/29 cattle in 9 months of USDA inspections had no indications of physical injury that would explain their "downer" status, suggesting that downer cows are less often found to have a sprained ankle, and more often sickly beasts with suspected BSE. (The paper doesn't give the number of total cattle processed.)

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) was signed into law in June, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The USDA recently celebrated its 100 year history of "protecting consumers" -- a perennial challenge.


1 I thought it was true until this very moment.

Acronym Required previously published Cow Rendering - Ingenuity Gone Mad", and "The Companions of Mad Cows".

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