Yesterday, news broke that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was recalling a record-breaking 143 million pounds of beef from a California meat packer. The Humane Society had caught employees at the Hallmark/Westland Meat company last month on video using a forklift to prop up sick "downer" cows long enough to pass inspection, in violation of a host of federal regs. The USDA hasn't exactly snapped into action on this one. Eating meat from sick cows can spread mad cow disease, yet most of the beef suspected of being contaminated had already been consumed by the time USDA announced the recall. And you know who ate it? Little kids.
A big chunk of the nation's poorest quality beef is routinely dumped on federally subsidized school lunch programs. Not surprisingly, beef in school lunch has caused a fair amount of food poisoning. No one knows how the mad cow problem will play out, since it takes years for the disease to show up in humans. But one thing is certain: As the Humane Society's video reaffirmed, USDA seems largely incapable of guaranteeing the safety of beef in this country. (The USDA tests fewer than 1 percent of all slaughtered cows for mad cow disease, and Bush administration, in fact, went to court to prevent one beef producer from voluntarily testing all his cattle for mad cow disease because it would make all the other companies look bad.)
Given that little kids are far more vulnerable to the effects of food poisoning than adults are, it seems to me that it's time to simply ban beef from the school lunch program. It's not like kids will suffer much. Most of them spend plenty of time at McDonalds. In fact, in light of the current obesity epidemic, there's a strong argument for banning beef solely based on its fat content. But putting school children at risk of illness and death from dangerous beef to subsidize ranchers and shoddy meat companies is criminal. Let the kids eat garbanzo beans and force the meat companies to find somewhere else to peddle their sick cows.