The government took action after The Humane Society of the United States provided videotaped evidence and a detailed report of their undercover investigation of animal cruelty at the plant to state and federal officials.
Animals unable to stand on their own, called downer cows, that had passed a veterinary inspection but were not walking before slaughter, were processed at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in an inhumane manner, the videotape shows. Injured animals were beaten and prodded, and a fork lift was used to shove living downer cows onto the killing floor, contrary to California law.
In a still frame from the HSUS video, a downer cow is shown being shoved along with a fork lift. (Image courtesy HSUS)
The danger is mad cow disease, or BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Inability to walk is a sign of an advanced stage of mad cow disease, so U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations forbid the processing of downer cows into the human food chain.
Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA under secretary for food safety said at a hastily called news conference today, "There is a remote probability that the recalled beef products could cause adverse health effects if consumed."
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said he is "dismayed at the in-humane handling of cattle that has resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company."
Schafer, who has been agriculture secretary for just 21 days, said, "It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards; however, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations."
BSE is a fatal, neurodegenerative disease that causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord of infected animals. It is believed to be caused by infective prions, misshapen proteins, rather than virus or bacteria. Prions are spread by feeding ruminant animals like cows material containing contamined animal tissue.
A ban on animal protein in ruminant food was passed in the United States in 1997 as part of the safeguard system, and Scafer said
In humans, the fatal illness is known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It is spread by consuming infected animals and by blood transfusions. By June 2007, it had killed 165 people in Britain, and six elsewhere, with the number expected to rise because of the disease's long incubation period.
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer at his Senate confermation hearing in January 2008. (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
Humane Society president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle said, "The extraordinary recall of 143 million pounds of ground meat produced at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. is a prudent decision to safeguard human health after The HSUS undercover investigation showed that mistreated downed cows had made their way into the food supply."
The USDA says the violations occured because although a public health veterinarian was "continuously" on duty at the plant, Hallmark/Westland workers sometimes did not notify the vet when a downer cow was in line for slaughter.
Hallmark/Westland slaughtered about 500 cows a day, most of them "spent" dairy cows.
Schafer said, "USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS, has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations."
Steve Mendell, president of Westland Meat Co. and Hallmark Meat Packing, says the video took him by surprise. "Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 thru November 14, 2007," he said.
"We have taken swift action regarding the two employees identified on the video and have already implemented aggressive measures to ensure all employees follow our humane handling policies and procedures," Mendell said. "We are also cooperating with the USDA investigators on the allegations of inhumane handling treatment which is a serious breech of our company's policies and training."
Evidence of cruelty provided on the HSUS videotape includes:
Daniel Ugarte Navarro is charged with five felony counts under California's anti-cruelty statute and three misdemeanor counts alleging the use of a mechanical device to move "downer" cows, those unable to stand on their own.
Convictions on the felony charges could bring a sentence up to 15 years in prison and $100,000 in fines, plus additional penalties on the misdemeanor charges.
The second worker, Jose Luis Sanchez, was charged with three misdemeanors involving downers. He faces up to 18 months in jail and $3,000 in fines if convicted.
"I need the public to understand that my office takes all cases involving animal cruelty very seriously," Ramos said in a statement. "It doesn't matter whether the mistreated animal is a beloved family pet or a cow at a slaughterhouse. Unnecessary cruelty will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent allowed by law."
Wayne Pacelle heads the Humane Society of the United States. (Photo courtesy HSUS)
It is possible that some of the meat from the illegally slaughtered downer cows was used in school lunch and other government supported food programs, Schafer said.
"Upon notification of possible violations of USDA regulations, we immediately began an investigation and placed products from this plant destined for the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations on hold," the secretary said.
The products destined for the federal food assistance programs "will be removed from schools and other holding facilities and destroyed," he said.
On February 3, Mendell said, "I proudly assure our customers that we comply with all USDA requirements, including the requirement that only ambulatory livestock may enter the harvest facility to be processed for human food. I am confident that we have met this high regulatory standard."
The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company remains suspended by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Pacelle of the Humane Society says that in the long term the federal government must assure both the integrity of food and the humane treatment of animals at all slaughter plants. "A recall of this staggering scale proves that it's past time for Congress and the USDA to strengthen our laws for the sake of people and animals."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.