Rancho Feeding Recall: Why Sick Dairy Cows Might Be to Blame

Categories: Featured, Recalls

The USDA has so far identified companies in 19 states that received the product. (None are in the northeast; the agency is updating its list of distributors and retailers on an ongoing basis.) But most of Rancho's recalled meat can't be removed from the food chain because most of it has already been consumed.

Meat-industry insiders say the 8.7 million-pound figure is misleading and only serves to sensationalize the recall.

Jake Dickson
"Those numbers make the USDA look good, like they're doing their part," says Jake Dickson, a New York butcher and founder of Dickson's Farmstand Meats, who spent about six months working in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in upstate New York. "But the amount of meat that's recovered is a tiny fraction of what was recalled. That's the myth of these recalls."

Joel Salatin, a sustainable-food advocate who has spent half a century farming and slaughtering livestock at Polyface Farms, his own USDA-certified operation in Virginia, says that the U.S. food-inspection bureaucracy uses recalls to "create the sense that they're really doing their job."

Mind-boggling recall figures "give Americans a false sense of security" about food safety, he contends, and small farms and slaughterhouses are easy targets because they can't afford attorneys and lobbyists to orchestrate damage control. Salatin recalls a visit with a lobbyist for a fast-food chain who laid it out for him: "'If you have an overzealous bureaucrat or unreasonable inspector,' he said, 'you don't have the resources to call me to fix it -- to get that inspector fired, transferred, or called off.'"

In sum, Salatin says, "Those of us who are trying to maintain small, community food systems are being suffocated out of business by oversight, which routinely grants concessions to the big players."

In 2008, Salatin spoke at a Congressional hearing on meat-industry safety and transparency, convened after activists released video of a downed dairy cow being pushed by a forklift at a California slaughterhouse. (What followed was the largest meat recall in American history: 143 million pounds, some of which was bound for school lunches.) Salatin says he was floored by testimony from Dr. Richard Raymond, then the USDA undersecretary for food safety and inspection. Raymond testified that economies of scale, coupled with a relative scarcity of inspectors, made larger plants more efficient than smaller ones.

A transcript of the hearing, available via the U.S. Government Printing Office website, includes testimony that corroborates Salatin's anecdote about lobbyists. Stan Painter, who chairs the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union that represents government meat inspectors, described how his superiors would overturn citations and reports at the behest of the USDA and the companies being cited: "Sometimes, even if we write noncompliance reports, some of the larger companies use their political muscle to get those overturned at the agency level or by going to the Congressional delegation to get this inspection staff to back off," he said.

Jake Dickson cites other federal mandates that challenge smaller operations. "The USDA makes things very difficult for a small facility," he says. "They have developed a system of record-keeping, paperwork, and testing that's suitable for very large facilities, and it's very, very cumbersome for small operators to execute."

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