Don’t have a cow, man

Last week, I read a story about 143 million pounds of beef products from California-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Company being retroactively recalled to February 1, 2006. Questions that came to mind:

Does beef keep for two years?

I’d always worked from the conventional cooking wisdom that meat could be stored for up to two months in the freezer. The charts [2],[7] suggests this is true for ground beef. Steaks and roasts can be kept for 6 – 12 months. Still, that’s a year shy of the retroactive recall date. Only canned beef products have a 2-5 year shelf-life[7]. Conclusion: most of the beef has already been consumed. Perhaps this is done for shock effect or litigation purposes?

“On the one hand, I’m glad that the recall is taking place. On the other, it’s somewhat disturbing, given that obviously much of this food has already been eaten,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “It’s really closing the barn door after the cows left.”

Update: In a conference call yesterday, USDA officials said more than one-third of the recalled beef wound up in federal school-lunch programs. “That is about 50 million pounds of beef,” said Eric Steiner, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. About 20 million pounds have been eaten, 15 million pounds are in storage, and another 15 million pounds are being traced.”[12] Of course, the meat industry is pressuring the USDA to reduce this last 15 million pounds. For example, the USDA is now considering exempting commingled mixes, changing their earlier policy.[13]

How many beef cattle are there in the U.S.?

According to the USDA[3], beef cattle inventory is 32.5 million beef cattle out of an overall population of 96.6 million. The larger number includes milk cows. Moo!

What’s the annual beef production?

Annual beef production in the U.S. is 40 billion pounds. Value of the production is estimated to be $40 billion. Now, a little quick math relevant to this discussion.

143 million / (40 billion pounds * 2 y) = 1.75% of the annual production

An average beef cow weighs 1,276 pounds at slaughter [6]

Of the total mass, only 45%[7] is edible.

143 million pounds beef / .45% beef / cow = 317 million pounds of cows

317 million pounds of cows / 1,276 pounds per cow = 249,094 cows

According to the USDA[3], there are only 15 cattle operators with herds larger than 500 cattle. I don’t know if that information comforts me.

How much beef is actually inspected?
The USDA[7] says inspection is mandatory. According to the annual numbers[6], 33,620,000 cattle were inspected in 2007.

Interestingly, according to CNN:

“The plant can no longer operate because the USDA withdrew its inspectors after the Humane Society of the United States provided video of animal abuse at the plant and the USDA learned that some animals, so-called “downer cows,” were slaughtered without reinspection. Without USDA inspectors on site, the plant is not allowed to operate.”[8]

143 million pounds sounds like a lot. Can you quantify that?

Apologies in advance for this being gross.

The density of ground beef 1,033kg/m3 [1], or 64.49 pounds per cubic foot[4]. (There is some variability in estimates[9], but this number will do.)

143 million pounds / 64.49 pounds/ft3 = 2,217,398 cubic feet

There is enough meat to fill 19,115 Subaru Imprezas.

… or enough to fill up 25 Olympic-sized swimming pools

… or enough to out-displace a Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier[9].

… or enough to cover Empire State Building complex up past the second floor[5].