What happened
The largest beef recall in U.S. history prompted calls this week for reform within the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for food safety. The USDA on Sunday announced the recall of 143 million pounds of meat—much of which went to schools—after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing sick cows being shoved with forklifts at a California slaughterhouse. (AP in The Washington Post, free registration)

What the commentators said
The USDA is “playing down the health risk,” said the Baltimore Sun in an editorial, but “there isn’t much reason to feel comforted” by the recall. Tons of questionable beef has already been consumed, some of it by “unsuspecting schoolchildren.” This just shows that “the nation's food inspection system is inadequate and often ineffective.”

It is particularly troubling that it took the Humane Society to “blow the whistle on dangerous slaughterhouse practices,” said the Greensboro, N.C., News-Record in an editorial. Why didn’t federal inspectors uncover the problems? These sick cows “could have been disease carriers”—it’s just dumb luck that no illnesses have been traced to them. “If you feel as if you’re playing Russian roulette when you eat, you’re not alone.”

The real villains here were the people at the meatpacking plant, said Kent Garber in U.S. News & World Report. Had they followed the rules about notifying inspectors about sick or “downer” cows, “the USDA says, some of the meat never would have seen the light of day, much less the inside of a gastrointestinal tract.”

That’s precisely why “the present patchwork of modest fines and penalties must also be stiffened,” said The New York Times in an editorial (free registration). The Bush administration shoulders some of the blame for failing to strengthen the regulatory system. “But the question Congress needs to ask is how many people need to get sick or die before it starts repairing and modernizing the nation’s food safety system?”