Congress held a series of hearings after secretly recorded video of animal abuse and food safety violations at a Chino, Calif., slaughter plant sparked the largest beef recall in U.S. history this February.
Video of cows too sick or injured to stand being dragged by chains, rolled with forklifts, and shot with high-intensity water hoses by employees of Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. was screened at a March 12 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee attended by Hallmark/Westland President Steve Mendell, who had been subpoenaed.
Mendell had previously denied allegations that lame animals were slaughtered but, after viewing the graphic video, he admitted to the panel that violations had, in fact, occurred at the plant. Representative Bart Stupak, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, asked Mendell if one could conclude from the video that at least one downer cow had been slaughtered for human consumption.
"That would be logical, yes, sir," Mendell responded.
Plant employees were secretly recorded by an undercover investigator with the Humane Society of the United States abusing crippled cows to make them stand so they could be slaughtered (see JAVMA, March 15, 2008).
On Feb. 4, shortly after the video was made public in late January, the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service suspended inspections at Hallmark/Westland, halting plant operations.
Nearly two weeks later, Hallmark/Westland voluntarily recalled 143 million pounds of fresh and frozen beef products when it was revealed the company had failed to consistently involve the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations where cattle were unable to walk after passing preslaughter inspection, as required by federal regulation.
Hallmark/Westland had been one of the largest beef suppliers to federal food and nutrition programs providing food for school lunches and the needy, including the National School Lunch Program.
At a Feb. 28 hearing of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, chairman Herb Kohl demanded greater vigilance by the USDA at the nation's meat processing plants. "We must have tougher standards, round-the-clock surveillance, and stiffer penalties to ensure our meat inspection system protects Americans," Kohl said.
The day after the hearing, the USDA issued a series of interim actions, pending the outcome of the investigation of Hallmark/Westland, meant to verify and analyze humane handling activities in all federally inspected establishments. For instance, inspectors will spend more time confirming humane handling activities and verifying humane handling in preslaughter areas.
Surveillance will also be conducted to observe the handling of animals outside the approved hours of operation from vantage points within and adjacent to the official premises. In addition, the FSIS will focus surveillance and inspection activities at establishments where older or potentially distressed animals are slaughtered, such as facilities that handle dairy or veal cattle.
On a related note, four senators have introduced legislation that would grant the USDA the power to close slaughter facilities that repeatedly process downed livestock and also impose fines and one-year shutdowns for first and second time violators.
At the Senate hearing, Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer was pressed by Kohl to have all 900 meat processing plants that slaughter cattle audited to make sure they have language-appropriate materials for their workers and that employees are sufficiently trained. The senator asked that the audits of the 23 plants supplying meat and poultry to the USDA nutrition programs be completed within 30 days.
Kohl also suggested that cameras be installed on every slaughter line and that the regulatory "loophole" allowing for the processing of some downer cattle be closed.
Schafer assured the committee that the USDA was taking steps to strengthen its inspection system. The secretary explained that the department acted immediately against Hallmark/Westland once it became aware of the video Jan. 30.
Schafer said he remains confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, saying it was "extremely unlikely" that the animals processed at the plant were infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Given the current safeguards against BSE in U.S. cattle, such as the ban on most mammalian protein-to-ruminant feed and the testing of some 40,000 animals annually, "we can definitively say that the incidence of BSE in the United States is extremely low," Schafer told the subcommittee.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, challenged the USDA's policy on downer cows. Pacelle told the subcommittee that FSIS inspectors routinely allow nonambulatory cattle to be slaughtered for human consumption if they initially appear healthy but collapse within the plant because of injury.
Pacelle was referring to a regulation introduced in 2007 as part of the government's efforts to protect humans from exposure to BSE. After BSE was diagnosed in a dairy cow in Washington state in 2004, the USDA prohibited the processing of all downer cattle. The rule was relaxed in 2007 so that FSIS veterinarians could determine on a case-by-case basis whether a cow that became nonambulatory after preslaughter inspection was fit for processing.
"This loophole is reckless from a public health perspective and promotes the inhumane handling of downer cattle. It is unacceptable on both counts," Pacelle said. (See "Lawsuit seeks to close downer cow loophole," about the HSUS lawsuit to end the exception.)
Also at the hearing was J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, which represents U.S. meat and poultry producers. Boyle testified that AMI members condemn the practices shown in the video. The meat industry has been committed to animal welfare as far back as 1991, when AMI partnered with noted animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, PhD, to write the first industry-specific humane handling guidelines, Boyle said.
Once the abuses at Hallmark/Westland came to light, the AVMA encouraged the USDA Office of the Inspector General and FSIS to thoroughly investigate the matter and enforce federal standards governing the humane care of animals destined for slaughter. The AVMA has several policies on the humane treatment of production animals, including the policy "Disabled livestock," which recommends humane handling of disabled livestock in all situations and immediate euthanasia of disabled cattle at slaughter plants.
Questions were raised during the Senate hearing about the professional capabilities of federal veterinarians during the inspection process. In written testimony provided to the subcommittee after the hearing, the AVMA stated Hallmark/Westland illustrates that the problem is not inadequate education but a lack of manpower.
"The unfortunate reality in all of this is that there just aren't enough veterinarians," the AVMA wrote. "The Hallmark/Westland plant had a full complement of authorized inspectors on site, but is the number adequate? FSIS is experiencing a shortage of veterinary inspectors that has been estimated in the hundreds and, in reality, more than the authorized number is needed."
The AVMA noted that it has for years urged congressional leaders and the federal government to pass and implement legislation that would increase the number of veterinarians working in food safety and public health. The AVMA was referring to the National Veterinary Medical Service Act and the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act. The NVMSA is underfunded and the VPHWEA is still being considered by Congress.
"The unfortunate reality in all of this is that there just aren't enough veterinarians. The Hallmark/Westland plant had a full complement of authorized inspectors on site, but is the number adequate? FSIS is experiencing a shortage of veterinary inspectors that has been estimated in the hundreds and, in reality, more than the authorized number is needed."
– EXCERPT FROM AVMA TESTIMONY
TO THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING ON THE BEEF RECALL