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Crime and Consequence

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Crime and Consequence

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
September 2012

The undercover video taken at the Central Valley Meat Co. was heartbreaking to watch: "used up" dairy cows struggling to stand or walk, being prodded and shocked toward the killing floor, where some met agonizingly slow deaths from botched procedures.

But faster than you can say "in-n-out," the USDA declared that no food safety violations had occurred and the slaughterhouse was allowed to reopen. Damage control was in full force when Rep. Jim Costa declared that the plant had been given "a clean bill of health." He said he hoped the investigation would "reassure all of Central Valley Meat's customers that their food is, and always has been, safe."

Costa's perspective, however, might have been just a little skewed by the fact that he grew up on a dairy farm, and on his official website he declares that "protecting and growing Valley agriculture a top priority." Protecting animals? Not so much. 

Efforts to stop the cattle industry from abusing animals seem to stumble and fall just like the debilitated cows recently filmed at a Hanford, California, slaughterhouse [Rampant Cruelty to Dairy Cows at California Slaughterhouse].

The undercover video taken at the Central Valley Meat Co. was heartbreaking to watch: "used up" dairy cows struggling to stand or walk, being prodded and shocked toward the killing floor, where some met agonizingly slow deaths from botched procedures.

The group that conducted the investigation, Compassion Over Killing, did a great job getting the footage onto the national news and calling the company out on its abysmal treatment of animals. The resulting publicity caused several companies to cancel contracts with the facility, including McDonald's, Costco and In-N-Out Burger. However, the company's biggest contract was with the federal government, which bought 21 million pounds of meat from Central Valley in 2011 to feed to schoolchildren.

The slaughterhouse was shut down for a week while the USDA investigated, as much for public health concerns related to downed cows than for animal abuse. After all, it takes an awful lot of awful for authorities to file charges against "standard industry practices" related to meat production (although that part of the investigation is still pending).

But faster than you can say "in-n-out," the USDA declared that no food safety violations had occurred and the slaughterhouse was allowed to reopen. Damage control was in full force when Rep. Jim Costa declared that the plant had been given "a clean bill of health." He said he hoped the investigation would "reassure all of Central Valley Meat's customers that their food is, and always has been, safe."

Costa's perspective, however, might have been just a little skewed by the fact that he grew up on a dairy farm, and on his official website he declares that "protecting and growing Valley agriculture a top priority." Protecting animals? Not so much.

(To its credit, the USDA apparently rejected a request from three other congressmen - Devin Nunes, Jeff Denham and Kevin McCarthy - to let the plant continue operating during the investigation. Nunes went so far as to call the undercover investigation "an act of economic terrorism.")

Meanwhile, Central Valley has pledged to improve its animal handling practices, which implies that it had some to begin with, something the video footage clearly contradicts. And the fact that this is the second California dairy farm that undercover investigators have recently found to have horrific cruelty - not just minor violations here and there - suggests that industry oversight is a farce. Only those who get caught on film face any sort of consequences.

Whether the fast-food and grocery chains will likewise resume doing business with Central Valley remains to be seen. They earn PR points for cutting ties early on, but unless they have independent monitors at the facilities they buy from next, business as usual means cruelty as usual, just somewhere else.

And what of the buying public? TV viewers who were warned about the graphic nature of the covert footage might have cringed in that moment, but if they are led to believe that such incidents are aberrations rather than commonplace, they will cruise through the drive-thru within a week's time and not think about it much until the next news headline.

For a moment, at least, California parents were made aware of what (or whom, really) their children are being served in the cafeteria. Few people understand that hamburgers come from "spent" dairy cows, but perhaps watching those animals collapse and convulse reminded the public that their food had a face. But it would be too much to expect most to see the irony in the "Got Milk?" posters hanging in the school lunchroom while kids munch on the remains of the cows whose milk they got.

It would take an investigation a month to drive home the point that severe animal abuse on farms and in slaughterhouses is a daily occurrence. Facilities that turn a blind eye to suffering and focus only on the bottom line of profit can only hope that the next covert camera doesn't focus on them. Or that the public changes the channel before it changes its appetite.