Flash in the Pan 

Track meat: bad beef for kids and athletes

The U.S. Olympic team has decided to bring its own food to the summer games in Beijing. The decision, which China called “a pity,” was precipitated when a U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) official encountered a 14-inch, Incredible Hulk-sized chicken breast in a Beijing supermarket. Tests on the meat revealed enough steroids to give man-boobs to the entire New York Yankees pitching squad.

But fear of positive steroid tests is only one reason behind the USOC decision. There are safety concerns, too, based on recent news stories about tainted Chinese food—including a batch of dumplings laced with methamidophos, a toxic insecticide, which hospitalized scores of people and put a 10-year-old girl in a coma, as well as reports of Australian Olympic athletes falling ill in China. Combined with stereotypes about Chinese kitchens, the incidents helped convince USOC officials that the food in China isn’t worth the risk.

In a way, I agree that it’s a pity. Most of the food China plans to serve has been contracted from farms near Beijing, making this decision a snub to locally grown food.

On the other hand, it can be productive to turn the light of scrutiny on sloppy and unscrupulous agriculture practices that can make food dangerous. But one has to wonder why the USOC chose Tyson Foods as the meat supplier for the 600 athletes in America’s Olympic delegation, and ordered 25,000 pounds of the company’s beef, chicken and pork.

Tyson, the largest meat company in the world, supplies meat to KFC, Taco Bell, and most other major fast food joints. Tyson is also the type of company that wins headlines for pollution problems. In 2003, Tyson pleaded guilty to 20 felony violations of the federal Clean Water Act at a Missouri poultry plant, where it dumped untreated wastewater into a stream. Last year, an employee at a Tyson chicken processing plant shot a video for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It shows workers urinating on the assembly line of dead and dying chickens, as well as a level of human cruelty and animal suffering that is beyond negligent, beyond punitive, beyond disturbing.

It’s hardly surprising that a company condoning such treatment of animals has been named in labor abuse cases as well. Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Against that backdrop, Tyson’s alleged actions include the dismissal of workers who develop work-related injuries, denial of workman’s compensation, union busting, and smuggling illegal aliens to work for sub-standard wages. Indeed, Tyson makes China’s food industry appear positively wholesome by comparison.

But apparently, Tyson isn’t even the lowest-grade meat available in the United States. That distinction belongs to the meat in American public school lunches.

Another film, taken by a Humane Society operative at the Hallmark/Westland meatpacking plant in Chino, California and released last week, shows cattle that are too sick and weak to stand up while being prodded, shocked, and jabbed toward slaughter. While the abuse was obvious, the food safety concerns related to the killing of the so-called “downer cattle” were what compelled the USDA to recall 143 million pounds of meat from the plant—the largest beef recall in history.

About a third of the recalled beef went to public schools—not surprising, since Hallmark/Westland is the number-two supplier of meat to those institutions. Facilitating the cheap-meat-to-school-kids process is the National School Lunch Program, which purchases USDA surplus agricultural products and sells them to schools dirt-cheap.

“It doesn’t look healthy. I don’t eat it,” says Fischer Elliott, a ninth-grader at Victor High. And the chicken patties? Students say they smelled like burned feathers.

“I can’t in good conscience keep serving them,” says Maria Stover, Food Service Director at Victor public schools, who has taken the patties off the menu for good.

As to the beef, Stover had decided even before the recall that she was done serving all forms of USDA meat. “It’s just too sketchy,” she says. When she received instructions from the USDA to ditch the recalled meat, she says the timing couldn’t have been better—she needed to clean out the freezer anyway.

Stover has won the school’s blessing to purchase as much local food as possible, especially when it comes to meat. She also plans to increase the size of her kitchen to allow more cooking options.

At the Hallmark plant, meanwhile, the only arrests—incredibly—have involved two Hispanic workers, mere pawns, charged with animal cruelty. They might as well have arrested the cows for being sick. Perhaps if it were our Olympic dreams, and not our children, that were threatened by the scandal, upper-managerial heads would be rolling instead.

Meanwhile, a typo in South Africa’s Independent Online reads like a Freudian slip: “The company, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing of China, California…”
It seems China would have every right to take offense that its name was in any way implicated.
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