Monday, February 18, 2008

My Beef With The Beef Recall

You may or may not have heard this morning, but Westland/Hallmark has initiated the largest beef recall in U.S. History, recalling 143 million pounds of beef. Most of the beef, apparently, has been eaten already.

Technically, this is not a regulatory issue- CNN doesn't even get the story right as the USDA does not have the legal authority to issue recalls for products already on store shelves. (The New York Times, to it's credit, actually gets this right in noting the company issued the recall.) I tend to blog a fair amount about "over-regulation" but what we have here is more a symptom of the mindset that leads to over regulation in the first place. If you've noticed, this recall is termed a class II recall, because there is no indication that any samples tested e.coli 0157h7 positive, nor is there any indication that anyone has been sickened from eating the meat in question. Which of course makes me wonder why the big-to-do in the first place.

Clearly, you had some bad stuff going down at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company. I saw the video (which you can see via the New York Times link) of the animal abuse and animal abuse is never cool. Of course, at the same time, animal abuse shouldn't be a reason for a recall. Apparently several sick animals made it into this 143 million pounds, but not the brain, spinal cord, or any of the other parts associated with mad cow disease. The media will spin this as a disaster in our food supply and the company will get the good P.R. of having initiated the recall, but the truth is a lot different.

As the media has pointed out, most of this beef has already been eaten. The probability the meat could cause illness was remote (which is basically saying "virtually impossible, but just don't hold it againast me if I'm wrong.") and no one has gotten sick. So then why the recall and why the big news? In part it's because of the same environment that gives us over-regulation in the first place. There is a belief out there, perpetuated by the media, that all risk can be eliminated and no level of risk should be tolerated. Just witness the number of scare stories we see about our food supply, despite the fact that our food supply is safer than it has ever been. But while we can reduce risk factors, it would be impossible to eliminate them, particularly in fresh, raw products like beef. And because of this environment that seems to meld fear with a misunderstood faith in science, you have what amounts to the perfect storm. The company issues a recall, not in the interests of safety (as the meat's already been eaten), but in the P.R. interests of protecting their image. And the media reports on the recall uncritically.

But just think for a moment if that 143 million pounds of beef had not been sold and eaten already- what if it could actually be recalled? I know Westland/Hallmark would think twice about a recall- and who knows, maybe that's what they did, buying time until a recall wouldn't cost them as much. But again, what if that meat could be recalled? Do you think if that meat was headed to feed people in Africa that it should be recalled? Hell, should we not give it to poor people right here in America? It's nice to say we're all for safety, but I think too many of us tend to forget that our hypersensitivity to these sorts of safety issues- and the belief that we can eliminate all risk- is a direct result of just how wealthy and prosperous we are.


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