USDA vows to enforce humane practices at meat plants

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Feb 29, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced interim measures to verify and assess humane handling procedures at federally inspected slaughtering facilities as it continues investigating charges of animal cruelty involving "downer" cattle at a California company.

The mistreatment charges were leveled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) against the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., of Chino, Calif., on Jan 30. The group provided video footage from its undercover investigation of the plant's handling of cattle that couldn't walk.

The HSUS revelations led the USDA to determine that the company had abused cattle and violated the federal ban on putting disabled cattle in the food supply without specific USDA authorization. The agency concluded that meat produced at the plant over the past 2 years was unfit for use as food, which prompted the nation's largest meat recall—143 million pounds, some of which was sold to the USDA's school lunch program.

The USDA said in a press release that it would:

  • Increase the amount of time per shift that inspectors spend verifying humane handling activities
  • Observe animal handling procedures outside of normal operating hours and from vantage points in and near facility premises
  • Issue a notice to federal inspectors reinforcing procedures for verifying humane handling techniques and making best use of the Humane Activities Tracking System (HATS), which monitors the time inspectors spend verifying humane handling and slaughtering

The USDA said its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will focus surveillance efforts on establishments that handle older or potentially distressed animals, such as those that handle dairy or veal cattle. It also said the FSIS will review the HATS program to determine if any modifications are needed.

The USDA's announcement came a day after a hearing before a US Senate appropriations subcommittee on food safety issues raised by the HSUS revelations. At the hearing, Sen Herb Kohl, D-Wis., subcommittee chairman, called for a ban on all downer cows from the food supply, stronger penalties for violators, and 24-hour video surveillance at production facilities, according to a report today from the Washington Post.

However, USDA Secretary Ed Schafer, speaking at the hearing, said he would not endorse a total ban on downer cows and asserted that existing rules are adequate, the Post reported.

"The penalties are strong and swift, as we have shown. Financially, I don't see how this company can survive," he said. "People need to be responsible and, from the USDA's standpoint, they will be held responsible—they broke the rules."

In 2003 the USDA banned downer cattle from the nation's food supply after the first US case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was found. However, the agency modified the ban last year to allow use of downer cows for food if a USDA veterinarian determines that the animal's condition is related to an acute injury rather than disease.

However, the HSUS has filed a lawsuit against the USDA, demanding that the agency reverse its modification of the ban, according to a Feb 27 HSUS press release. Relaxing the ban has created a "loophole" that led to the abuse of disabled animals and contributed to the massive meat recall, the HSUS said in its statement.

Food safety issues surrounding downer cattle from Hallmark/Westland were also raised at a hearing on a wide range of food contamination issues on Feb 27 before the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The committee invited Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland, to attend the hearing, but he did not appear. Members of the committee said they would consider issuing Mendell a subpoena to compel his testimony.

In a related development, at least two USDA employees have been placed on paid leave of absence in connection with the agency's investigation of the Hallmark/Westland facility, the Wall Street Journal reported today. The newspaper quoted an official of the National Joint Council of Food Inspectors, the union that represents USDA inspectors.

A USDA spokeswoman said the agency couldn't comment on the report because of the continuing investigation, according to the story.

See also:

Feb 29 USDA press release
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_022908_01/index.asp

Feb 18 CIDRAP News story "Animal-cruelty probe leads to US's biggest meat recall"

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