Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Downer cows, beef and me...

A few weeks ago, when the downer cow video and beef recall hit, I offered my opinion during John's World on US Farm Report. I anticipated a strong response from beef producers and was not disappointed. I also have realized that beef producers are under such economic pressure right now that they might not hear what I said, but hear instead an attack on beef consumption.

So, here is the record to date, including all the comments. Reach your own conclusion.

First, the original letter that came to us:
I am writing this to you because I know that you actually read these and
when you do respond on the air, you do so with good information. I was
deeply disturbed this morning by a video clip on my local news about the
most recent beef recall by a California slaughter house alleged to be
the largest recall in US history. The clip showed a clearly terrified
cow being pushed by a bulldozer into a pit. Another shot showed a
different cow who was clearly underfed being pushed into a similar pit.
The reporter stated that this slaughter house was having animal abuse
charges made against it and I assumed the video was evidence of that
abuse.

As someone who does animal rescue full time and who IS NOT a fan of PETA
and who does still eat beef and chicken, I would like to know how to
find out if the meat I am buying is processed using humane methods of
slaughter. Maybe that's a naive concept but there must be companies out
there who do not use the sick, disgusting methods shown in the video I
saw. There must be a way for the consumer to know how his meat is
processed. I have already stopped eating pork a year ago after seeing a
documentary called "The Witness" in which a man became involved in
animal rescue after saving a cat and eventually went so far as to go
under cover in a pork slaughter operation in which he filmed pigs being
dragged screaming by their ears into slaughter pits. I try to be open
minded about the reality of eating meat but THAT I cannot tolerate. If
that is also the reality of eating beef and chicken, then I can adopt a
vegetarian lifestyle. Although, the idea doesn't thrill me!!

Let me be clear.... I am not a tree hugging hippy or a PETA supporter.
I do not agree with their militant tactics although SOME of their
message is good. I truly enjoy a good steak but I cannot continue to
consume meat that causes unnecessary cruelty to the animals involved.
Can you PLEASE give out some information on how to find companies who do
follow humane policies. After seeing the video this morning, I am now
questioning all of the meat buying decisions I am currently making!
Maybe all of the things I think are cruelty free are fake! I try to by
free range chicken but is that a true concept? Or is the company just
putting "feel good" rhetoric on their packaging?? Are there really cage
free, free roaming chickens who produce the eggs I am buying?

I am sorry to going on so long but this really upset me and I want to be
as informed as possible.

Thank you for your time.

Amy Quinlan
Groveland, FL
This was my response on US Farm Report (We use all caps in the prompter):

TIME NOW FOR OUR WEEKLY LOOK INSIDE THE FARM REPORT MAIL BAG...

THIS RESPONSE THE THE BEEF RECALL FROM AMY QUINLAN IN GROVELAND, FLORIDA

"AS SOMEONE WHO DOES ANIMAL RESCUE FULL TIME AND WHO IS NOT A FAN OF
PETA AND WHO DOES STILL EAT BEEF AND CHICKEN, I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW
TO FIND OUT IF THE MEAT I AM BUYING IS PROCESSED USING HUMANE METHODS OF
SLAUGHTER."

AMY, THANKS FOR WATCHING AND FOR YOUR MEASURED RESPONSE TO AN
INFLAMMATORY EVENT. YOUR REACTION WAS NOT THAT MUCH DIFFERENT FROM MINE, AND I HAVE, EARLIER IN MY CAREER HAD TO DEAL WITH DOWNER CATTLE, AND STILL REGRET NOT BEING ABLE TO DO IT MORE HUMANELY.

YOU CAN MAKE A POWERFUL DIFFERENCE IN HUMANE ANIMAL TREATMENT BY ASKING YOUR SUPERMARKET EMPLOYEES AT THE MEAT COUNTER OR EVEN THE CHECKOUT HOW THE MEAT WAS PROCESSED. IF THEY HAVE AN UNSATISFACTORY ANSWER, TAKE THE MEAT OUT OF YOUR BASKET. TRUST ME, THIS IS MORE POWERFUL THAN LETTERS TO CEO'S OR RADIO CALL-IN SHOWS.

SOME BUT NOT ALL OF THE BEEF INDUSTRY REALIZE THIS WEEKS' EVENT WAS NOT
ABOUT POSSIBLE MEAT CONTAMINATION, IT WAS ABOUT ANIMAL CRUELTY. ARGUING
THAT THE MEAT WAS SAFE MISSES THE POINT ENTIRELY.

IF YOU DON'T REALIZE IT YET, WE ALL ARE UNDER SURVEILLANCE MORE THAN WE
THINK. FROM OUR OWN GOVERNMENT, TO STORE SECURITY CAMERAS TO GOOGLE
STREETS, VIDEO COVERAGE OF EVERYDAY LIFE IS BECOMING NEARLY UBIQUITOUS.

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS DON'T STAY SECRET LONG, AND THE SOONER WE START
MODIFYING OUR ACTIONS TO MATCH OUR WORDS THE MORE SUCCESSFUL WE WILL BE IN THE MARKETPLACE.

Which in turn generated these comments from viewers:
Several weeks ago on U.S. Farm Report a woman asked how she could tell if beef she purchased at a store came from some facility that mistreated animals. You replied that if she wanted to make a statement she should take the package of beef out of her grocery cart and put it back on the shelf. THANKS A LOT!

I am a beef producer that does not mishandle animals and the majority of beef processed is done as humanly as possible. It seems that the beef industry is attacked from every side by misguided individuals.

If you noticed the pictures of animals being mistreated in a California facility were dairy animals ~ not beef. All the pictures of cattle that were shown on T.V. that had symptoms of B.S.E. were dairy animals not beef animals. The dairy industry needs to clean up its act. The misdeeds of the dairy industry is damaging the reputation of the beef industry. Most of the dairy meat ends up as hamburger or processed meats, not steaks or roasts. As a crop producer, you probably do not feel the pain that beef producers feel when they are continually attacked by those who do not know all the facts.

Leonard Berghoefer
Hampton, Iowa

Mathew Moore, Kentucky

How do you address people to counter measure the beef incident that
happened this week. I really don't agree with it. Because he is saying
when you buy meat at the grocery store you can ask the meat guy or the
cashier how it is processed, if they can't answer it to take the meat
out of your basket. That's like saying you went down here to the shell
mart and bought a tank of gas and went in to ask the clerk how the crude
oil is processed into gasoline and if they can't tell you they should
get out of the car and walk. Probably don't mean a whole lot to him
because he grows a lot of corn. But from a guy who survives on beef
cattle alone it's a big deal. I really don't appreciate the way he
recommended the people to deal with what happened with the knuckleheads
out at the packing factory. Thank You!!


Mike, Camp Point, IL

I was listening to your commentary about the downer cow business. I am
a livestock farmer. I am sorry to see your people have hopped on this
anti beef wagon. This downer cow thing has been going on since the
beginning of time. How else are you suppose to move downer cows? We
ate downer cow meat growing up. These are PETA people that are telling
this story. When an animal goes down in a truck, we have to tie a chain
around them to get them out. We do not have too many packing plants
around. We will soon be running short like oil. We let emotions run
over reality. These farm organizations and broadcasters jumping on the
anti-meat wagon is sad. Soon we are going to lead people into being
vegetarians. This is the road we are going down. Very disappointed
that the packers(employees) were being fired. It was not their fault
and this is something they have been doing since they started. So, like
I said before I am very disappointed you jumped on the wagon with the
PETA people. It is hard enough for us to make a living out there as is
with the prices of corn and if you take away our livestock we have
nothing to live off of.


Dear Sir:

I was so disappointed in your “mail bag” segment of the Farm Report Sat. morning Feb 23. You took a wide brush and painted all beef, in the category of that horrible video of cattle being abused at the slaughter house. Those were DAIRY cows that had been shipped in there from some huge milk factory. The story started when they let those cows get into that shape to begin with and continued when they tried to wring the last dime out of them by dumping them at that slaughter house that hired whoever they could get at minimum wage. If you think you were repulsed, you should be a rancher that takes good care of their animals and certainly does not want to see ANY animal treated this way, but after they leave our hands we have no say as to what happens to them. Small businesses in America were “Wal-Marted” and Agriculture had been ‘Monsantoed” and “Con-Agra-ed”. You said to ask the checkers at the stores how the cattle were treated and if they did not know - put the meat back. They can’t know that any more than they would know if the clothes they checked were produced by human slaves in other countries or if the toys have lead in them, the big corporations do whatever they want. They don’t care if someone puts the meat back; they will just lower the price to the producer so their profits are not hurt.
How much of that 40 billion profit Exxon made goes to the peons in the oil fields in foreign countries? Are you not going to use fuel in your car or on your farm because of it? What is the answer to any of it???
But please--- people like you with a microphone and a pen or a computer should not wreck the beef industry because of what the dairy industry and big corporations are doing. We are already hurt because of feed costs—don’t accuse us of things we did not do.
Please apologize to the beef industry. Thank-you
Betty Williams

P.S. I am 76 and one of those dinosaurs that does not have a computer so my daughter is e-mailing you this letter.


Dear John,
I was surprised by your comment on the show about the meat recall.
First of all I blame the media for a lot of our problems in agriculture
because they don't do enough research before they air a news segment.
Take for example the lifting and moving the cows with the forklift. Have
you ever tried to move a cow that didn't want to move or couldn't? No
one asked what the other option was to handling those cows. I can tell
you, slaughter her right there. Those guys were doing the best they
could.
The part of your conversation that surprised me was when you said you
should ask the people behind the meat counter where the meat came from!
I'll give you odds 98% will point to the box and say it came out of that
box. You are telling our consumers to once again believe our food is not
safe. I don't believe your thought process was complete when you said if
the people behind the counter couldn't tell you where the meat came
from, you should put the meat back!
You showed a picture of a meat market in Cuba in a segment of your show.
Would you rather buy your meat like that? It was certainly fresh, but
for how long?
The meat that was recalled had no reported cases of illness caused by
eating it. If you wanted to report on something, find out what was going
to happen to the meat. There are a lot of hungry kids in the United
States who could use it.
I know you are not responsible for everything that goes on during your
show and I know there are plenty of disclaimers during the credits at
the end of the show but! During your segment about horses in Virgina the
film showed mares having urine collected for hormone manufacturing. Now
I believe in hormones, rBst, GMOs, implants and synthetic fertilizers
but a lot of people don't. I give note of this because it solidifies my
believe that reporters don't do enough research and generally have their
mouth in gear and their brain in neutral.
Do keep working at your program because I do enjoy it and I feel safe
in that at 5:00 AM in the morning, when your show airs, most consumers
are sound asleep and never see your program.
Thanks for your time,
Dave Johnson
Oregon


It is a rainy sunday morning in southern california. So I have some
time to write this. I have a concern regarding your view on the
Hallmark beef issue. I believe and have taught in my high school
agriculture classes the real issue of the Hallmark recall was the
use of downer cows in the meat supply. Since the BSE incident in
Sunnyside Washington I have consistently taught the problems
associated with our meat industry and that we have a safe wholesome
product when the laws are followed. But your stating the recall was
based on inhumane methods of slaughter I think was incorrect and
misleading. Regarding your comment on asking a checkout cashier
about a meat product was incorrect. If the consumer has a concern
then have them talk to the meat department. Telling the public to
refuse buying a agriculture product is "just plain wrong"

USDA has a responsibility in in enforcing the humane slaughter act
and approving preantemortem inspection. USDA was just as wrong as
these slaughter house workers. I haven't read about any action
against the USDA inspectors and this happened in our backyard. I was
upset with the video footage of inhumane treatment at Hallmark. It
was unfortunate and the meat industry needs to do some damage
control. But if the US Humane Society had their way we would have a
meatless society.

Sam Walker
Agriculture Instructor
El Capitan High School
Lakeside, CA

TO JOHN PHIPPS:
IN REFERENCE TO COMMENTS ABOUT MEAT IN THE SUPERMARKETS.

TO ASK THE BUTCHES OR THE CHECK OUT CLERKS IF THE ANIMALS WERE TREATED HUMANLEY.

I THINK IT IS ENTIRELY WRONG TO ASK EITHER THE BUTCHERS OR THE CHECKOUT CLERKS BECAUSE WE ARE NOT IN THE PROCESSING END OF THE OF THE MEAT CHAIN.

SOME OF THE CLERKS IN THE SUPERMARKETS DO NOT HAVE A CLUE WHERE MILK COMES FROM.

I HAVE BEEN IN THE MEAT BUSINESS FOR OVER 40 YEARS AND I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW THIS MEAT IN THE COUNTER HAS BEEN TREATED.

I THINK ON THIS CALIFORINA MEAT RECALL, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR DROPPED THE BALL COMPLETELY ON THE TREATMENT OF THESE DOWNED ANIMALS.

THANK YOU,
JAKE THE BUTCHER

And my response to these comments:

The beef industry is indeed under siege as I have pointed out on USFR and on my blog. The corn industry no longer regards them as customers who should be consulted before mandates are enacted that triple the price of feed. Readers of this blog and USFR viewers have been subjected to my many different arguments against ethanol mandates (the most recent here), not the least of which was the damage it was doing to our best customer - the US livestock industry. But my defense of your industry does not require me to answer less than truthfully to viewers who watch my show.

Please read the transcript. I do not seek to place blame, I simply point out two things: First, for those in agriculture who think Internet video is childish or prurient nonsense, here is an example of why I think it could be a factor which shapes public opinion more than newspapers soon. Remember, video viewers can watch multiple times whenever they want and spread that experience to others. That is why I am warning agriculture they need to respect this technology: Farm like the whole world is watching! [Watch it here]

We can make all the excuses we want about what happened in that clip, but my experience is those images will last longer than any explanation. The beef industry might also want to review what happened to Howard Dean as a result of viral video. Too, the beef industry is one and the same as the meatpacking industry to most consumers, regardless of whether ranchers have any control or not. Nor will the public differentiate between dairy and beef cows easily.

Second, it is also my opinion that the American food industry tracks consumer whims with stunning efficiency. Any tiny feedback ("take the meat out of your basket") that makes being able to answer Amy's question a profit booster (remember what she asked me: How can I tell if meat is humanely produced?) would do more to correct abuse in the system than mandatory USDA guidelines. Modern retailing is not about finding and punishing the guilty. It's about responding to consumer concerns.

Consider the lead contamination of toys, for instance. I'll bet few store employees had answers to consumer questions when the problem first arose, but sales executives soon ensured they DID have answers within a few days.

I stand by my answer. And I think that it cannot be construed as an attack on the beef industry. It is suggestion to the industry to get up to speed on technology and its effect on the transparency of our food system, and that arguing with customers has proven to be a bad business model.

Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

John
I have enjoyed your blog for some time now and after hearing your comments on USFR this weekend I felt I must comment. I do not dispute your right to ask about the history of your meat purchase and if not satisfied to put it back. However to be fair you should apply those standards to everything in your cart and if the help can not tell you the conditions that each product was grown in or manufactor in you should also put those back. I feel you would not have much in your cart. Sometimes in the real world life is not always like we would like it.

John Phipps said...

Anon:

Fair point. However, the lady asked about beef, not bleach. Bottled water sellers are running into a similar issue (something about the plastic) and are getting info ou to retailers.

I think this is a question of how to respond to media-prompted concerns. To date some things that have not worked well are blaming the media and expecting across the board answers such as you suggest.

After all, why should beef producers have to respond to a concern about GMO rice?

We all have to put out our own fires.

Miserable Grad Student said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miserable Grad Student said...

I love to eat meat, but I have just given up beef out of fear that it is no longer safe. Also, I am not a school student but I do live near Southern California (Arizona) and have eaten fast food hamburgers in the past. What do you think is the real probability that I could get mad cow from either this recall or other bad beef in the past?

John Phipps said...

Miz:

The chance of you or any human getting BSE is absolutely zero. The disease to which you refer is vCJD - a similar type of infection.

There has been 1 case of vCJD reported in the US - a former resident of the UK who was infected during the 90's by eating risk material.

The odds of getting vCJD are virtually zero. Not only must you have a source of BSE-tainted meat - which we do not have in the US - you must consume it for some time.

I will post details about this overblown fear soon.

Finally, the downer cows almost certainly did not have BSE - cows go down for any number of reasons, sadly.