The “cow that stole Christmas” in 2003 is no longer the single most damaging event to America’s beef industry. That famous cow, diagnosed with BSE and announced to the world on Dec. 23, 2003, caused the immediate closure of America’s beef export markets. Most of those markets have reopened, but now, more than four years later, our industry is still battling to get full export access to the remainder of those markets. That single event cost America’s beef industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last month, however, a new, unrelated event promises to cost our industry even more. On Feb. 17, USDA ordered Chino, Calif.-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. to recall 143 million pounds of beef after an undercover video showed non-ambulatory, or downer, cows being shocked, kicked and shoved with forklifts in an effort to get the cattle to stand, presumably so they could pass inspection prior to slaughter. Federal regulations prohibit non-ambulatory cattle from entering the food supply, both in an effort to implement humane slaughter standards and because the animals may pose a higher risk of disease. The recall was the largest in history.

Neither event posed a serious threat to the food supply. The BSE cow never entered the food supply. Unfortunately, the cows shown being mistreated in the video did enter the food supply, yet because of multi-safeguards at the packing-processing level, USDA spokesmen said the health risk from eating meat products from these cows was “negligible.”

In the days following the release of the video, however, America’s beef industry sustained a serious blow to its image. The video was taken by a supporter of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group whose stated mission is to end animal agriculture.

Both USDA and livestock producer organizations attempted damage control by condemning the actions seen on the video and reassuring consumers that America’s food supply remains safe.

USDA officials emphasized that cattle inspection procedures were not followed in the Westland/
Hallmark case, and when they aren’t, the product is considered “out of compliance” and must be recalled. USDA also emphasized the event was classified as a Class II recall, not Class I, which is used when there is a reasonable probability that a public health risk exists.

But apologies from our industry and assurances that our food supply remains safe fell on a lot of deaf ears. Compounding the disturbing abuse seen in the video was the fact that much of the product from Westland/Hallmark ended up in our nation’s school lunch program. Nothing can pique the interest of America’s national media more than a food scare tied to our children.

But the food safety aspect of this case is not the most damaging. As the American Meat Institute and NCBA stated in press releases following the recall, there are numerous, interlocking food safety procedures in meat plants to ensure safety.

Indefensible is the animal abuse shown on the video and broadcast by media across the country. Beef industry spokesmen and USDA emphasized that abuse such as that seen in the video is isolated. Unfortunately, that matters little  —  the image of our industry has been damaged severely and will be crippled by the next video. And there is likely to be more, as HSUS has already acknowledged it has other undercover investigations in progress.

The “cow that stole Christmas” in 2003 cost us our export markets. But animal abuse can cost our industry much more if it results in a significant decline in our domestic market. And it’s clear from this recent episode that Americans won’t ignore animal abuse of any kind.

The vast majority of producers and packers adhere to humane animal handling and slaughter practices. But that’s no longer enough. As an industry, we must commit to eliminating any form of animal abuse at every level of production. We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy on animal abuse, and we must demand that every industry stakeholder comply. Our customers will accept nothing less.