This week's record recall of beef may have been more about enforcing federal regulations than protecting consumer health, but the move drove home key issues that health-conscious consumers should weigh when buying meat.
Federal regulation of meat processing plants is supposed to ensure that only healthy animals make it into the food system. But even though federal inspectors were at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. plant in Chino, Calif., full time, it took an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States to uncover disturbing abuses of cattle that led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef.
Where meat comes from and how it's processed are key criteria that consumers should consider, nutritional experts say. Dr. Dorothy Blair, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University, advises that those who eat meat should "eat local meat, eat grass-fed meat" and know their farmers.
Western Pennsylvania has several sources for locally raised meats as well as other products. These include grocery and specialty stores such as the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze, McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores in Monroeville and Brentwood, Grove City County Market, Whole Foods Market in East Liberty and Whole Food's Co-op in Erie.
Another way to obtain locally raised foods is by subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture program -- many CSAs sell poultry and/or eggs or include them in a subscription fee.
Misty Morning Farm in Cherry Tree, Indiana County, offers subscription packages that include a variety of meats and poultry. Wil-den Family Farms in Jackson Center, Mercer County, specializes in pastured pork -- meat from pigs that are allowed to roam rather than raised in confinement.
Consumers can also shop at farmers markets. Outdoor markets will start to open in May, but the indoor Farmer's Market Cooperative of East Liberty is open year round.
Legal hunting is another good way to get outside the industrial food supply.
Downsides to shopping for local meats and poultry are affordability and availability. Prices tend to be higher, and because demand outstrips supply, it's not always easy to find.
"Those who can find it, should buy local," said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. But he stressed that buying local is not a solution for everyone.
"The real problem out there is not the contrast between local and this massive industrial production, it's that we don't have the in-between layer, where consumers in Pennsylvania can count on beef coming from Pennsylvania or even the Northeast," Mr. Snyder said. Such a move would ensure more availability and better prices for safer foods.
Dr. Blair is concerned that the pressures that keep some meat prices low have a dangerous cost. The recall, announced Sunday, was caused by Westland/Hallmark's mishandling of "downer cows," cows that cannot walk and are not supposed to enter the food system unless a veterinarian certifies that their immobility is not disease related.
"Downer cows can be extremely dangerous" said Dr. Blair, but "they are under pressure to use downer cows" because the profit margin on meat is so small.
Cows that cannot walk are banned for use in the food supply because they pose an added risk of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal disease that eats away at the brain. There have been three confirmed cases of infected cattle in this country since 2003.
Sunday's announcement was classified as a Class II recall, indicating that the chances of health hazards were remote. Other large recalls involving E. coli have been Class I recalls, indicating that eating the product may cause serious health problems or even death.
Agriculture officials said there was little health risk from the recalled meat because the animals had already passed pre-slaughter inspection and much of the meat had already been eaten. In addition, they noted that while mad cow disease was extremely rare, the brains and spinal cords from the animals -- the area most likely to harbor the disease -- would not have entered the human food chain.
"The great majority has probably been consumed," said Dr. Richard Raymond, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's under secretary for food safety.
Dr. Blair and Mr. Snyder believe moving to a state inspection system for meat processing might improve access to potentially safer local meats.
Mr. Snyder's organization is studying models for state inspection systems, and may make recommendations to the Legislature, in hopes of supporting more moderately sized facilities.
"At the federal level, there needs to be some recognition that these huge industrial systems are not the way to feed our people," he said.
For more information about CSAs, farmers markets and other sources of local produce and meats visit www.buylocalpa.org/.
The New York Times contributed to this report. Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.