In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.

Remember those “downer” cows that got forced through the kill line and into the food supply in California’s Westland/Hallmark beef-packing plant — the ones caught on tape by the Humane Society of the United States?

Rest assured, friends — that was an isolated incident. Thus USDA assures us in a recent interview. Only … not so much. For those who want to believe that downers don’t make it into the meat supply, this was a rough week.

First, Westland/Hallmark CEO Steve Mendell had to reverse earlier assurances that downers “were not slaughtered, ground or sold.” Forced to watch the Humane Society video amid the glare of a congressional hearing, Mendell admitted that “obviously my system broke down.”

Asked if he himself would knowingly eat meat from the sort of sick, tortured cow he had just seen enter the food supply, the executive abjectly muttered, “no.” Millions of children weren’t given that choice, of course; Westland/Hallmark had been a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program.

Then we get this report from the Southern California-based Press Enterprise detailing the national program for keeping the meat supply free of mad cow disease. Let’s just say the safeguards are about as lame as some of those cows caught on the Humane Society tape.

The Press Enterprise points to two major flaws in food-safety regulations related to mad cow.

First, in 1997, the FDA banned the use of cow parts in cow feed, after mad cow had been decisively linked to bovine cannibalism. But like the Westland/Hallmark CEO’s original denials, the ban contains some important holes.

To wit:

Blood from cattle still can be mixed into cattle feed. That’s a concern because blood can carry the infectious BSE agent. Chicken coop floor waste, such as feces and feathers, can still be fed to cattle. That’s a concern because chicken feed can legally contain bovine meat and bone meal. Waste food from restaurants still can be fed to cattle. That’s a concern because of the potential for, say, leftover steak to be incorporated into cattle feed.

Then we get this:

In January 2004, Tommy Thompson, then U.S. health and human services secretary, announced that the Food and Drug Administration intended to close those loopholes. It never happened.

Yikes. So cows are still eating cows. But at least we’re testing to make sure that cows led to slaughter aren’t infected with mad cow, right? Well, not really:

Today, about 40,000 — or 0.1 percent — of the 37 million cows slaughtered each year are tested, a number that consumer groups say is too low, especially when compared to testing programs in other countries.

It gets worse. The fraction of cows that do get tested aren’t chosen at random; beef packers volunteer animals for testing. The FDA vigorously defends its program; devastatingly, even the USDA thinks it’s a pile of, well, B.S. Here’s the Press Enterprise again:

A 2006 USDA Inspector General report noted that because the testing program was voluntary and not random, it could not be determined whether the government had tested a representative sample of the highest-risk cattle, such as non-ambulatory cattle and those showing signs of a central nervous disorder.

“Non-ambulatory cattle” … right, downer cows. The kind that Westland/Hallmark was forcing into the food supply.

Don’t have a (downer) cow, man; redux: Trouble in the School Lunch Progam

It came out a while back, but it richly deserves a place on the Meat Wagon: The Wall Street Journal ran a nice exposé of limp federal safety oversight of the National School Lunch Program, the main recipient of Westland/Hallmark’s dodgy beef. The money quote:

In reports dating back to 2003, the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office cited the USDA’s lunch-program administrators and inspectors for weak food-safety standards, poor safeguards against bacterial contamination, and choosing lunch-program vendors with known food-safety violations. Auditors singled out problems with controls over E. coli and salmonella contamination.

Props to my vegan peeps

I’m no vegan. I think animals have a vital place in any truly sustainable agriculture system, and I cannot fathom culinary culture without cheese, eggs, and — yes — meat.

But I agree that animal slaughter is morally troubling — I would sooner submit myself to slaughter or the rigors of a CAFO than send my dog or two cats. I firmly believe that the suffering of animals involved in agriculture should be minimized. And their products — from meat to cheese — should be consumed only with great respect and moderation: reverence, even.

So, I’ve got nothing but love for vegans, who force us to think hard about our consumption of animals. And I’m proud to make common cause with them in the struggle against factory farming.

All of which is prelude to a salute to the “undercover vegan wired with a camera no bigger than a sugar cube [who] spent six weeks last fall working at a Southern California slaughterhouse” (The New York Times) — the person who documented the Westland/Hallmark abuses.

The courageous herbivore even “brought sandwiches made with soy riblets and ate them in a dusty parking lot with the other workers” to fit in. Now that’s heroic.

Meat is unmentionable

I have no idea what this means: a bunch of women competing on America’s Next Top Model appeared on national TV, wearing undergarments made of raw meat — and not much else. They did so at a butcher shop in Manhattan’s meatpacking district — which has become the sort of place where you’re more likely to meet a model than a butcher.

Is it possible that such unexpected images of raw meat will make people think about how they’re eating actual flesh? I fear that most people encounter meat these days as a little brown hockey puck in a bun. They forget that it’s flesh and bone — like us. Images of raw meat as couture might force them to think otherwise.