Cheap Meat vs. humane handling

By Bartlett Durand

I read the news about the USDA shuttering Central Valley Meat Company for inhumane treatment of animals.  I also watched the video.  Don’t watch it unless you really, really want to.  It is gross.

Huffington Post

Here is what I saw: repeated shots to the head of cows.  Cows unable to stand.  Cows obviously sick.  Cows kicking after supposedly being rendered senseless.  People standing on the noses of cows to suffocate them (presumably after a missed shot).  Very abusive handling practices.

Four things jumped out at me: (1) WHO would do this? (2) WHY would they do it?  (3) WHAT causes this type of situation?  and (4) these are all cows.

Let’s analyze that in reverse order. 

These are all cows.  In the industrial system, cows are pushed very hard in their lives to produce incredible amounts of milk.  There is a very high and fast turnover of milking cows in the industrial milk world, and when they are culled they are quite literally on their last legs.  A healthy cull—one from a pastured system or that is being culled because of a missed breeding—can be an incredibly good source of meat.  But when they are culled because they are sick or worn out, the quality of the meat deteriorates as well. 

So why cows, and why in that situation?  Because they are cheap.  A healthy cull brings a relative premium, but these “slow walkers” are cheap and farmers and truckers are desperate to find a home for them so they can get paid something, anything.  A slaughter plant basically makes its money by throughput—the more animals that pass through, the better chance they have to make a profit.  Even if the price of the meat (or “trim” as it is called when slotted for ground beef or sausage products) is a wash against the animal costs, the plant will make money off the hide (leather) and other offal products (byproducts).  I’m not sure, but it also appears the company had contracts for ground beef, so they were producing their own source material (generally a good thing) at the cheapest price possible (which leads to the cows). 

Which brings us back to WHY?  Because the company, in order to gain the contracts with their customers (USDA school lunch programs, In-N-Out Burger) have to be win the bid.  Which is largely price driven.  Because those customers have budgets and want to make a profit (or meet a tight budget) so they drive the costs down.  [And yes, you read that right.  USDA School Lunches are one of the main drivers for the use of slow cows into food production, just like they led the market for “pink slime.”].  All of which circles back to the customer—the $.99 burgers, the 2-for-1 deals, the $.50 school lunches.  CHEAP FOOD COMES AT A HIGH PRICE.

Ok, but those horrible people doing this to the cows.  Aren’t they bad people?  I seriously doubt it.  Instead they are folks who need a job, and to keep that job they have to keep the flow of animals going into the pens.  They have supervisors yelling at them for faster production.  Keep those labor costs down!  Keep the production level high!  In that environment, the workers are trained, explicitly and implicitly, that their own value is tied only into how fast they can move these sick animals through the system.  The inhumane treatment of the animals is a direct reflection of the treatment of the workers.  It makes me sad all around.

So, what can you do?  Buy good meat.  Buy from a system that rejects the industrialization of food, focusing instead on good husbandry, small abattoirs (slaughter/meat processing), and humane treatment of both the animals and the workers.  It will cost you more in dollars, but will not tax your soul.