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ESSENTIAL DESTINATIONS

MONTH: March 2008

Slaughterhouse cruelty leads to biggest beef recall in U.S. ever

 

CHINO, Calif; WASHINGTON D.C.. -- Animal advocates are hoping that the biggest meat recall in U.S. history will finally bring enforcement of federal slaughter standards, 50 years after Congress passed the Humane Slaughter Act, 30 years after making compliance "mandatory"--on paper.

Responding to videotape produced by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the U.S., the USDA on February 3, 2008 withdrew inspection of the Hallmark/ Westland Meat Company in Chino, Calif-ornia, forcing the slaughterhouse to close.

The video showed downed cows being forced to their feet to walk to slaughter by means including electroshock, tail-yanking, kicking, lifting them with a forklift, and ramming them with the forklift tines.

"Because the cattle [slaughtered at Hallmark/Westland] did not receive complete and proper inspection, the Food Safety Inspection Service has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced on February 17.

The beef was recalled not because of the cruelty of the Hallmark/Westland employees' actions, but because USDA regulations require that non-ambulatory cattle either not be slaughtered for human consumption or be individually inspected before slaughter to ensure that they are not suffering from ailments-- such as "mad cow disease"--which may be passed to humans who eat them. The recall included the remains of all cattle slaughtered at Hallmark/Westland since February 1, 2006--143 million pounds of beef, including about 50 million pounds that were supplied to school lunch programs, more than 20 million pounds of which were already consumed.

The USDA honored Hallmark/ Westland as the federal school lunch program "Supplier of the Year" for 2004-2005. It was one of just 23 boneless beef suppliers, among about 900 in the U.S., that was approved to supply federal programs.

The Hallmark/Westland recall also involved products marketed by General Mills Inc., Nestle Prepared Foods Co., and Hormel, under the Farmer John's label.

Hallmark/Westland general manager Anthony Magidow said the recall would probably put the slaughterhouse permanently out of business. The Hallmark/Westland recall was more than four times the size of the previous record beef recall of 35 million pounds, which put Thorn Apple Groves Inc. of Forrest City, Arkansas, out of business in 1999.

The Thorn Apple Groves recall was due to bacterial contamination, as were a series of recalls from another major school lunch program supplier, Supreme Beef Processors Inc. of Dallas, also in 1999.

Like Thorn Apple Groves, Supreme Beef Processors Inc. closed, but the National Meat Association used the Supreme Beef closure as a test case that in 2001 overturned the USDA use of salmonella as an indicator for the potential presence of more deadly forms of bacteria.

The Hallmark/Westland recall came two days after San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos filed criminal charges against former Hallmark/Westland supervisor Daniel Ugarte Navarro, 49, who had worked for 30 years at the slaughterhouse under a succession of owners, and employee Rafael Sanchez Herrera, 34.

"Navarro told Chino police that a former owner, Donny Hallmark, instructed him to use techniques such as forcing animals up with the forklift or holding water hoses to the nostrils of cattle," wrote Richard Brooks of the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Fingerprints identified Sanchez as an illegal alien with outstanding warrants against him in two unrelated drug cases, under two other names.

The HSUS undercover investigator told reporters for the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee that he gave Hallmark/ Westland his real name and Social Security number and was quickly hired, apparently with no background checks. The job paid $8.00 an hour for 12-hour days of hard labor. A vegan, he ate soy burgers and fake deli meat in his car during brief lunch breaks, trying to avoid becoming conspicuous.

Almost immediately, the investigator said, he saw routine use of illegal procedures, including electroshocking and tail-yanking to try to make downed cattle walk to slaughter. He described seeing two workers kill one cow where she fell, then drag her with a chain into the slaughter box on her knees. The investigator used tiny video cameras worn under his shirt, with an hour of recording capability per day. He wore out three cameras during the surveillance.

The USDA inspectors who are supposed to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act and meat safety rules against slaughtering downed animals were never present when the abuse took place, the HSUS investigator said.

USDA spokesperson Laura Reiser told media that the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse had five USDA inspectors present per working day, including three slaughter line inspectors, a veterinarian, and a roving inspector.

Livestock handling expert and slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin told Leslie Berkman of the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the abuses at Hallmark/ Westland were "some of the worst stuff I have seen--a horrible cruelty issue," and expressed skepticism, from having visited Hallmark/ Westland twice herself, that the management and USDA personnel could not have known about the use of the forklift.
"I can tell you I know others around the country were not trying to get cows up with a forklift," Grandin told Berkamn. "This is totally bad and unusual."

National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals chair Stan Painter told Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus on February 29 that the USDA had placed a veterinarian and a floor inspector who had worked at Hallmark/ Westland on paid administrative leave."Painter said a local union representative told him earlier that a third inspector was also placed on leave, but he could not confirm it with the agency," wrote Flaccus. The USDA refused to comment.

"The USDA inspection squad has been trimmed by both political parties since the 1970s, plummeting to about 7,800 from 12,000 in 1978," wrote Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business & the Coming Food Crisis author Christopher D. Cook in a commentary published by the Los Angeles Times. "Unannounced inspections have diminished to roughly 15,000 annually, from more than 22,000," coinciding with"soaring rates of salmonella, E. coli, and other bacterial contamination since the 1970s," Cook added.

At that, the USDA acknowledges having about 500 unfilled positions for inspectors.

"I would say we have an adequate number of inspectors," Food Safety Inspection Service administrator Alfred Almanza testified to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on February 28. But Roger Viadero, the USDA inspector general from 1994 to 2001, told reporters that the agency needs at least 10,000 inspectors.

Apart from the issue of adequate inspection is the issue of whether non-ambulatory cattle should be slaughtered at all. Traditionally, dairy farmers only sell cattle to slaughter when they begin to break down from the stress of bearing calves every year to keep their milk flowing. Many already have difficulty standing for long intervals even before they spend hours or days being trucked to slaughter, typically arriving dehydrated and weakened.

The dairy industry has vehemently opposed legislation that might prevent farmers from loading spent cows to be trucked to slaughter. The alternative would be killing the cows on the farm, meaning that their remains could not be sold for human consumption. Instead, rendering companies might pay a minimal amount for the carcasses--or might charge a fee to remove them, depending on the distance they would have to be hauled and the state of the market for rendered byproducts, used mainly as animal feed and fertilizer.

Slaughtering owned cattle began to become a concern of public health officials as recognition developed, beginning in Britain in 1986, that mad cow disease might be transmitted from animal to animal through the consumption of the remains of infected animals. Ten years later, in 1996, came evidence that a form of mad cow disease had passed from beef to humans.

The U.S. organization Farm Sanctuary debuted in 1986 by rescuing a downed sheep from a stockyard "downer" pile, and has made campaigning against the slaughter of "downers" a focal campaign ever since. However, the first Farm Sanctuary legislative success, in California in 1994, resulted in a law that the rival Humane Farming Association warned would prove unenforceable, and in fact it was not
enforced at Westland/Hallmark despite several enforcement opportunities.

In particular, the Inland Valley Humane Society & SPCA, of Pomona, reportedly investigated "downer" cases at Hallmark at least three times in the 1990s. As well as unsuccessfully seeking action at the state level, the Inland Valley Humane Society & SPCA shared its findings with the USDA, which failed to act.

The USDA did, however, cite Hallmark/Westland in 2005 for overuse of electric prods--and then dismantled the regulation that might have prevented the abuses that the HSUS undercover investigator documented.

"After a mad-cow scare in 2003," explained Los Angeles Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette, "the USDA banned downer cows from the food system. But at the same time, it created a regulation allowing any cow that fell in the slaughterhouse to proceed to the kill box if a veterinarian inspected the animal and concluded that she fell because of injury, not illness."

HSUS on February 27 sued the USDA for allowing this exemption to the rule against slaughtering downers, which the lawsuit contends was improperly adopted and provides farmers with a financial incentive to sell unhealthy cattle to be slaughtered.

The HSUS lawsuit points out that a 2006 audit by the USDA inspector general found that of 29 non-ambulatory cows killed at 12 slaughterhouses during a 9-month interval, 20 exhibited no evidence of an incapacitating injury. This implies that they were suffering
instead from undiagnosed diseases.

"We do not believe this is a food safety issue," testified agriculture secretary Schafer on February 28, despite the recall and the HSUS lawsuit, but Schafer announced that the USDA would conduct more random inspections of slaughterhouses, and would pay more attention to those like Hallmark/ Westland that handle former dairy cattle.

Even as Schafer addressed Congress, Canada confirmed having discovered a case of mad-cow disease, the 12th known in Canada, this one in a six-year-old Alberta dairy cow, born about five years after both Canada and the U.S. in 1997 banned feeding cattle "milk replacers" and other substances containing recycled cattle remains.

The discovery came three months after the U.S. lifted most of the restrictions on imports of Canadian beef and live cattle that were imposed after the first Canadian mad cow disease case was detected in 2003.

USDA spokespersons asserted that because most of the meat from downed cattle slaughtered at Westland/Hallmark had already been
eaten without anyone becoming ill, the health risk from it was minimal.

Responded Jack Woodall, assistant editor of the International Society for Infectious Diseases' electronic bulletin board ProMed, "Since the human form of BSE has an incubation period of years, this statement is meaningless."

Schafer assailed HSUS for allegedly contributing to the circumstances leading to the beef recall by delaying the release of the undercover video. "I am sorry that Secretary Schafer doesn't understand that while we launched the investigation four months ago, it was completed some time later," responded HSUS president Wayne Pacelle.

When the research was completed, the results organized, and all of the hidden camera video reviewed, we turned over the information to
the San Bernardino district attorney's office. We turned the materials over to local authorities because the laws of California were breached. Frankly, we did not turn to the USDA first because the agency has a history of canoodling with the industries it regulates."

Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Connecticut) said she would hold hearings in March 2008 on a proposal to separate food safety
inspection from USDA jurisdiction.

"Food safety ought to be of a high enough priority in this nation that we have a single agency that deals with it, and not an agency that is responsible for promoting a product, selling a product, and then as an afterthought dealing with how our food supply is safe," said DeLauro.

Speculating that the HSUS undercover video might prove pivotal in advancing some sort of legislative or regulatory reform, Associated Press writer Frederic J. Frommer recalled the undercover film of hog slaughter made by Arthur P. Redman of Seattle, aired at
a 1957 congressional hearing, which helped Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) to win passage of the Humane Slaughter Act, three
years after he introduced the first draft version.

"We are morally compelled, here in this hour, to try to imagine-- to try to feel in our own nerves--the totality of the suffering of 100 million tortured animals," said Humphrey. "The issue before us today is pain, agony and cruelty."