from Common Dreams
Video footage being released today shows workers at a California slaughterhouse delivering repeated electric shocks to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own; drivers using forklifts to roll the "downer" cows on the ground in efforts to get them to stand up for inspection; and even a veterinary version of waterboarding in which high-intensity water sprays are shot up animals' noses - all violations of state and federal laws designed to prevent animal cruelty and to keep unhealthy animals, such as those with mad cow disease, out of the food supply.
Moreover, the companies where these practices allegedly occurred are major suppliers of meat for the nation's school lunch programs, including in Maryland, according to a company official and federal documents.
The footage was taken by an undercover investigator for an animal welfare group, who wore a customized video camera under his clothes while working at the facility last year. [ View the video on the Humane Society Web site ] It is evidence that anti-cruelty and food safety rules are inadequate, and that Agriculture Department inspection and enforcement need to be enhanced, said officials with the Humane Society of the United States, which coordinated the project.
"These were not rogue employees secretly doing these things," the investigator said in a telephone interview on the condition of anonymity because he hopes to infiltrate other slaughterhouses. "This is the pen manager and his assistant doing this right in the open."
The investigator and Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said the footage was taken at Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, Calif. Hallmark sells meat for processing to Westland Meat Co. in Chino, according to Westland President Steve Mendell, who is also Hallmark's operations manager.
Over the past five years, Westland has sold about 100 million pounds of frozen beef, valued at $146 million, to the Agriculture Department's commodities program, which supplies food for school lunches and programs for the needy, according to federal documents.
In the 2004-05 school year, the Agriculture Department honored Westland with its Supplier of the Year award for the National School Lunch Program.
In an interview, Mendell expressed disbelief that employees used stun guns to get sick or injured animals on their feet for inspection.
"That's impossible," he said, adding that "electrical prods are not allowed on the property."
Asked whether his employees use fork lifts to get moribund animals off the ground, he said: "I can't imagine that."
Asked whether water was sprayed up animals' noses to get them to stand up, he said: "That's absolutely not true."
"We have a massive humane treatment program here that we follow to the nth degree, so this doesn't even sound possible," Mendell said. "I don't stand out there all day, but to me it would be next to impossible."
California law and USDA regulations do not allow disabled animals to be dragged by chains, lifted with forklifts, or, with few exceptions, to enter the food supply, all of which happened at Hallmark during the investigator's time there last fall, he said.
Video images show those activities, as well as a trailer with Hallmark's name on it.
One reason that regulations call for keeping downers - cows that cannot stand up - out of the food supply is that they may harbor bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. It is caused by a virus-like infectious particle that can cause a fatal brain disease in people.
Another is because such animals have, in many cases, been wallowing in feces, posing added risks of E. coli and salmonella contamination.
The Humane Society and other groups have for years urged Congress to pass legislation that would tighten oversight at slaughterhouses.
Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service's Office of Field Operations, whose 7,600 inspectors monitor the nation's 6,200 slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants for the Agriculture Department, said he had not seen the video. He added that he would have preferred that the Humane Society contacted the agency directly.
But he said use of a Hot Shot - a brand-name electric device used to get dawdling cows to move along - is "not allowed" as a means of getting a downer on its feet.
In the video, handlers repeatedly apply powerful shocks to the heads, necks, spines and rectums of immobile cows.
"That's certainly not a way to have them stand up or a correct way to move them," Petersen said.
Raising a cow on the prongs of a forklift is also not allowed, he said.
"We've made it clear that mechanical means to try to elevate an animal is not considered humane," Petersen said.
If he had evidence that the practices in the video were going on at a slaughterhouse, "I would immediately suspend them as an establishment," he said. "You're done. You're suspended. Everything stops. That's what we call an egregiously inhumane handling violation."
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an expert in slaughter practices, called the Humane Society footage "one of the worst animal-abuse videos I have ever viewed."
The investigator said a USDA inspector appeared twice a day, at 6:30 a.m. and about 12:30 p.m., to look at each cow to be slaughtered that day. The practices occurred before the inspector's appearance, he said, with the goal of getting the animals on their feet for the short time the inspector was there.
"Every day, I would see downed cattle too sick or injured to stand or walk arriving at the slaughterhouse," he said. "Workers would do anything to get the cows to stand on their feet."
USDA regulations say that if an animal goes down after it is inspected but before it is slaughtered, then it must be reinspected. But that rarely, if ever, happened, according to the Humane Society.
"They wanted to do whatever they could to get them into the kill box, including jabbing them in the eye, slamming into them with a forklift and simulating drowning or waterboarding the animals," Pacelle said - all practices that can be seen in the video.
Mad cow disease is extremely rare in the United States, but of the 15 cases documented in North America - most of them in Canada - the vast majority have been traced to downer cattle. When the United States had its first case a few years ago, 44 nations closed their borders to U.S. beef, Pacelle said, costing the nation billions of dollars.
To sneak downers past inspectors, Pacelle said, is "penny-wise and pound-foolish."
© 2008 The Washington Post
Video Reveals Violations of Laws, Abuse of Cows at Slaughterhouse
By Rick Weiss
The Washington Post, January 30, 2008
Straight to the Source