Oversight and accountability when it comes to food safety is obviously a good thing, but how can that best be achieved when some of the very agencies and organizations out there protecting consumers aren't working in concert?
That's the question the newly appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture would like answered. Ed Schafer was literally baptized in fire and brimstone after taking office only a few weeks ago and suddenly finding himself plunged into the middle of a 143-million pound beef recall controversy. When the Humane Society videotaped what looked like sickened cows being forced to their feet to walk toward slaughter at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, Calif., the outcry was tremendous among the public as well as the beef industry.
The way the situation unfolded in the press is currently being addressed by USDA, while an ongoing investigation of Westland/Hallmark is in full swing. While the beef industry as a whole is shocked at the apparent mistreatment of animals, some leaders such as Secretary Schafer are equally appalled by the lag time in reporting the abuse.
“I am extremely disappointed in how the Humane Society has handled this process,” Schafer told reporters at a press conference in Monterey, Calif., following a presentation he gave to the National Meat Association's 2008 annual meeting. “They are not forthcoming with information. If their mission is to allow or to provide humane treatment to animals out there, there's the simple fact they took this film in October and didn't contact USDA until after they released it to the press at the end of January.”
Schafer's point is difficult to miss, even for the general media, although it rarely makes the headlines.
“For four months, theoretically, animals were not being properly treated and the Humane Society stood by and let it happen,” Schafer said. “That's not the relationship that we should have in this marketplace. The Humane Society and the USDA should be working together on the common goal which is the humane treatment of animals. If they or someone else comes forward and says animals are not being treated properly, we at USDA are going to step forward and say we have rules and regulations that we are going to stand on immediately, not four months later.”
One can only surmise that the delay in notification to the USDA by the Humane Society was yet another attempt at a smear campaign directed at agriculture. In the meantime, the USDA has come under fire for its own response time and accountability in relaying the issue to the public. It's a criticism that Schafer strongly rebuts.
“We are in the midst of an investigation and recall of massive proportions and we're in the midst of trying to ensure the public that their food supply is safe,” he said. “We're going to continue to do that. Sometimes in the scheme of things, it doesn't allow you to immediately respond to or rebut everything that is said out there.”
Schafer took immediate action upon learning of the situation. “I immediately ordered a full investigation,” he told
attendees at the National Meat Association conference in Monterey. “Importantly, we brought our inspector general in on the issue because of what we believe are criminal aspects of the situation. We pulled in the Food Safety Inspection Service, the Agriculture Market Service, as well, as they've been working with what we know, along with the local law enforcement facilities here.”
The fallout has been widespread, starting with Hallmark/Westland Meat Company. The ramifications to the industry as a whole are continuing to trickle down.
“We suspended Hallmark as a supplier for the School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs immediately,” Schafer said. “This investigation is ongoing.”
Getting to the bottom of “why and how” it happened are now the critical elements, according to Schafer. “I'm very intent on finding out why this happened. There is a process in place that I think works well for downer cattle. I will point out that in Westland/Hallmark, 400 times last year, the veterinarian was properly called and made a judgment about whether an animal should go into processing or go to the rendering plant.”
That process evidently broke down at some point. Shafer is intent on making sure it doesn't happen again, but he doesn't necessarily believe the system is broken just because one company didn't follow the rules.
“The safeguards are there,” he said. “The regulations are in place. We need to find out why the regulations weren't followed. I don't know why. Something was an incentive to an individual to break the rules and we need to find out what that was. And if we do, we can make sure those incentives aren't in place in other facilities.”
On a California tour with Schafer, California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura stressed the importance of learning from the situation and implementing and enforcing better management practices.
While some legislators such as Senator Richard Durbin and Representative Rosa DeLauro have jumped on the inevitable bandwagon of calling for the creation of another federal agency and more oversight, Schafer is reluctant to hop on that particular bandwagon himself.
I'm just not a big government kind of guy,” he said. “To have a new agency and a new bureaucracy and new tax dollars spent on a system that I believe is already appropriate and safe and good — I just don't see the need.”
He told reporters that he is quite confident in the current system and the process already in place in dealing with offenders.
“The reality is we can always react to these things by saying let's stack on another layer in the system. The reality that I have as the secretary of agriculture, having gone through this process from day one, gives me a huge confidence in the USDA.
“Our people are committed. The rules and regulations are generated properly. We follow those rules and regulations, and the USDA employees everyday are doing their jobs well.”
The problem, according to Schafer, is that some people can always break the rules.
Agricultural Secretaries Schafer and Kawamura also ate lunch with school children and toured the Food Bank in Salinas while touring Monterey County.