These stories are disturbing to anyone with even a minimal concern for the nation’s food animals.

And worst of all, they don’t need to keep recurring.

By now, it’s well known that a California beef plant that processes primarily cull dairy cows was closed last week by USDA after clandestine videos captured by an animal activist showed what the department termed “disturbing evidence of inhumane treatment of cattle,” according to a report on

The videos, which were posted online by Compassion Over Killing operatives, showed cows at Hanford, Calif.-based Central Valley Meat Co. that appeared to be sick or lame being beaten, kicked and shocked in an attempt to get them to walk to slaughter, according to multiple news reports. The footage also showed animals repeatedly shot with a captive bolt stunner, while another cow is shown hanging from one hind leg while kicking and seemingly still alive.

The release of the undercover video and the subsequent shutdown of the plant prompted USDA, McDonald’s Corp. and In-N-Out Burger to suspend or cancel contracts with the company. According to an Associated Press story, USDA bought more than 209 million pounds of ground beef worth more than $50 million from the company last year.

Predictably, USDA officials then responded with exactly the wrong message.

“While some of the footage provided from this facility shows unacceptable treatment of cattle, it does not show anything that would compromise food safety,” according to a USDA statement sent to CNN.

That’s not what virtually anyone among either the public or policymakers cares about. Food safety isn’t the issue here. Nor are “jobs,” which was the other irrelevant hot button a trio of California congressmen cited, mentioning the state’s high unemployment rate, as a reason to re-open the plant.

Republican Reps. Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, arguing that shutting down the Central Valley Meat plant does nothing to further the goal of responding to the alleged animal abuse.The representatives also asked Vilsack to intervene against “attacks that are occurring at the behest of radical groups.”

A USDA spokesman said that the company cannot reopen until it resolves its humane handling issues.

“The company must first submit a corrective action plan detailing how they intend to comply with humane handling regulations before USDA considers allowing them to operate,” saidUSDA spokesman Justin DeJong.

Company officials released a written statement saying that, “While the Food Safety and Inspection Service says it has no indication that food safety has been compromised at our facility, we recognize that the decision by our customers is a standard business practice and understand their concerns.”

How reassuring.

Searching for the real cause

The issue here isn’t yet another incident of clandestine activist videography. That’s become the anti-industry’s go-to tool for all the tools they recruit to do their dirty work.

Nor is food safety something that needs to be bantered about. Regulators, industry officials and animal welfare experts all understand that non-ambulatory animals are rarely afflicted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, not to mention that regulations in place for nearly 10 years now require removal from the food chain of central nervous system tissue from all cattle, ambulatory or not.

Nobody’s going to be exposed to mad cow from eating a hamburger made of meat sourced from this or any other U.S. beef plant.

Nor is the problem all about poorly trained workers or tone-deaf owners. Both of those situations exacerbate the problem, but the cause of the practices captured on video lies elsewhere: The dairy industry.

When cows are bred and managed to maximize production, the result is far too many animals that end their “careers” as milk producers weak, worn out and often struggling to remain ambulatory during transport to the increasingly few, distant cow plants. Virtually every one of the cull cow operations left in business runs on incredibly thin margins—how’d you like to balance the books on 40-cents-a-pound ground beef?—and the loss of even a handful of cows jeopardizes the plant’s bottom line.

Central Meat Company owners Lawrence and Brian Coelhohave stated that their company is going to work with animal welfare experts to improve in-plant practices and increase the use of video monitoring to ensure compliance with handling standards.

That’s all well and good—and necessary.

But it’s even more urgent for the entire beef industry—not just the neglected stepsister cow killing plants—to focus upstream and insist on stricter standards for dairy operators. Most are careful, conscientious managers, but in addition to the occasional bad actor, the system itself is problematic.

The dairy industry could mitigate the problem of non-ambulatory cows itself with earlier culls and more aggressive programs to ensure that the animals have outdoor access, and thus exercise, throughout their productive lives.

But ultimately, without joint dairy-beef industry initiatives, backed by federal loans guarantees—if not funding—to site at least half a dozen new cow plants in key dairy states, these bad handling incidents will recur again and again.

You can’t have a system that pushes processing dairy cows down to such a minimal value that only shoestring operations can continue in business, and then expect the highest levels of professional conduct from the underpaid line workers on up.

That’s as much a pipe dream as hoping that activists will someday stop trying to put the few remaining cow killers out of the business.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.