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Forget Hot Pockets—how did the US miss 8.7 million pounds of diseased beef in the first place?

A worker processes slaughtered cattle in the Marfrig Group slaughter house in Promissao, 500 km northwest of Sao Paulo October 7, 2011. Brazil is the world?s second largest beef-exporting country by volume acording to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). The world's population will reach seven billion on 31 October 2011, according to projections by the United Nations, which says this global milestone presents both an opportunity and a challenge for the planet. While more people are living longer and healthier lives, says the U.N., gaps between rich and poor are widening and more people than ever are vulnerable to food insecurity and water shortages. Picture taken October 7, 2011 REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Not enough oversight?
By Gwynn Guilford
CaliforniaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nestlé has warned against eating some of its Philly Steak & Cheese Hot Pockets, since “a small quantity” of the beef inside is subject to a US Department of Agriculture recall. The culprit is Rancho Feeding Corporation, a California slaughterhouse that ”processed diseased and unsound animals,” according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which warned there is a “reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

Not the sort of rhetoric to whet one’s appetite for microwavable meaty goodness. But there may be more at, er, stake here than possibly toxic Hot Pockets. In addition to dairy farms and food giants like Nestle, Rancho Feeding also serves small, local, sustainable ranchers like Northern California’s Freestone Ranch, whose website says it raises grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free cattle in an “ecologically sound” way.

In a reversal from earlier releases pegging the recall to the lack of inspectionFSIS now says Rancho Feeding’s beef came from “diseased and unsound” cattle. Though FSIS declines to specify what this means—and it did not respond to requests for comment—it could refer to the slaughter of “downer cattle,” the industry’s euphemism for cows that are unable to walk into a slaughterhouse due to broken bones, diseases, or the fact that they’re already dead.

So far no one’s reported any actual illnesses after consuming the beef. That’s especially weird given that the recall is for every ounce of beef that Rancho Feeding processed in 2013, all 8.7 million pounds of it.  Companies like Rancho Feeding are supposed to have not one but two USDA inspectors. So how did Rancho Feeding kill cattle for 371 days without any? It may well be Rancho Feeding’s fault. Then again, by the USDA’s own admission (pdf) in June 2013, the FSIS’s staff is overworked and often undertrained.

How did the ever-helpful US Congress respond? It slashed $19 million from FSIS’s $1 billion budget.

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