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What’s in the beef?

Americans would be healthier if they consumed less beef, nutrition experts routinely tell us, but there are far better ways to cut back than last week’s recall of 143 million pounds of meat processed at a California slaughterhouse.
Coming on the heels of last year’s scares involving tainted spinach and bad ground beef, it hardly inspires confidence in the food inspection process to learn that USDA inspection procedures proved so lax that apparently crippled animals ó so-called “downer” cows ó were slaughtered for consumption, in violation of federal guidelines. Actually, they weren’t just slaughtered. A lot of the recalled beef had already been eaten before a secret videotape exposed the problems at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif., and regulators took action.
The USDA has assured consumers that it doesn’t believe the meat poses any health risk ó in large part because no one apparently got sick from eating it. That’s fortunate for students at the schools which received about 37 million pounds of the meat, including the Rowan-Salisbury system (which has removed any remaining cases from its cafeterias). A precautionary recall is better than having hundreds of people rushing to the hospital with symptoms of food poisoning, to be sure. But the recall, the largest in U.S. history, still leaves the queasy feeling that all is not well within the nation’s food safety chain.
While people shouldn’t panic, they should be questioning why such inspection lapses occur. The USDA has veterinarians who monitor slaughterhouses to prevent diseased cows from being slaughtered. Yet the problems at the California plant didn’t come to light until months and months after the fact, thanks to an undercover video that showed debilitated cows being prodded or pushed through the processing line. Even then, USDA officials said they weren’t sure they would be able to track down all of the recalled product or tell consumers where it was sold.
Policy experts have long been calling for an overhaul of the meat inspection system, with more rigorous supervision of slaughterhouses, closer tracking of products and fuller disclosure of the retail outlets where recalled products are sold. This latest episode adds new weight to those arguments ó about 143 million pounds worth.

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