Animal handling violations lead to largest beef recall in U.S. history

SALEM, Ohio — A California-based slaughter plant Feb. 17 voluntarily recalled more than 143 million pounds of beef — the largest recall in U.S. history — after the USDA discovered animal handling violations at the facility that resulted in improper inspections.

The recall applies to all Hallmark/Westland products produced Feb. 1, 2006, through Feb. 2, 2008.

The violations were brought to light by a Humane Society of the United States investigation and video that showed “employees routinely beating cows to try and make them rise” in order to be slaughtered.

“USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became nonambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations,” said Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer.

Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, FSIS has determined them to be unfit for human consumption, Schafer said.

Reacting

Since Jan. 30, when USDA learned of the allegations, the agency has taken aggressive action.

The slaughter plant was suspended and voluntarily shut down while USDA continues its investigation into whether any violations of food safety or additional humane handling regulations have occurred.

Since Feb. 8, the plant’s products destined for the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations have been pulled and destroyed.

Hallmark/Westland was the nation’s No. 2 supplier of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program, according to the humane society.

USDA also suspended all federal food and nutrition program contracts the packing plant held.

The USDA suspensions will remain in effect and the packing company will not be allowed to operate until written corrective actions are submitted and verified by FSIS to ensure that animals are humanely handled, according to USDA undersecretary for food safety Richard Raymond.

Cautionary

James Reagan, chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, stressed that the recall “is happening out of an abundance of caution,” because the company did not follow regulations for handling nonambulatory cattle.

“We support USDA’s recall as a precautionary measure. At the same time, we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe,” said Reagan, who also serves as vice president, research and knowledge management, for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“We have multiple interlocking safeguards in place in every beef processing plant in America so that if one is bypassed, the other systems continue to ensure the product we serve our families remains safe.”

Those safeguards include in-plant procedures to reduce E. coli and salmonella, and the removal of tissues demonstrated to contain the bovine spongiform encephalopathy agent in infected cattle from the human food chain.

The prohibition of nonambulatory cattle from the food supply is an additional safeguard against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, according to USDA.
To date, there has been no evidence found at the plant that suggests any of the cattle slaughtered there were infected with mad cow disease.

Fast action

The Humane Society of the United States is calling the recall “a prudent response” and is pushing USDA and lawmakers to strengthen humane handling regulations and enact laws to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

While most of the recalled beef has already been consumed, the humane society believes the recall is appropriate not only to mitigate risks to public health, but also to send a message that such inhumane behavior can have dramatic consequences for slaughter plants that permit it.

The humane society also called on USDA to change its policy and prohibit the slaughter of all downed cows, and to quickly enact pending animal welfare legislation.

“It is unfortunate that the Humane Society of the United States did not present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007,” said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who called himself “dismayed” and “deeply concerned” about the situation.

“Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time.”

Felony charges

On Feb. 15, a California district attorney filed felony animal cruelty charges against two employees who were terminated by Hallmark/Westland due to the investigation.

One of the slaughter plant’s employees was charged with five felony counts under California’s anti-cruelty statute and three misdemeanor counts for abusing downed animals. A second worker was charged with three misdemeanors counts of abusing downed animals.

* * *

Q&A: Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co.

Q. How are animals inspected on ante-mortem at slaughterhouses?

A. Every head of livestock is inspected ante-mortem, before slaughter, by a public health veterinarian or other inspection personnel. The vet or other FSIS in-plant inspectors randomly verify, during each shift, plant humane handling practices before, during and after ante-mortem inspection and will take immediate control action if inhumane handling is observed.

FSIS recognizes that plant employees might be aware of the presence of inspection program personnel, so inspectors are instructed to conduct humane handling verification activities in a way that they are not in plain view of plant employees, when possible.

During ante-mortem inspection, an animal will be condemned once the veterinarian has determined the animal to be nonambulatory disabled. The veterinarian may make a determination on whether an animal can proceed to slaughter if the animal becomes nonambulatory after ante-mortem inspection has been performed.

Q. Why didn’t FSIS personnel witness nonambulatory animals being presented for slaughter?

A. FSIS inspection program personnel conduct ante-mortem inspection on all cattle on the same day of slaughter. If an animal becomes nonambulatory before or at the time of being presented for slaughter, plant personnel are required to summon an FSIS public health veterinarian to re-evaluate the animal.

If an animal becomes nonambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, the public health veterinarian may make a determination, on a case by case basis, that the animal was unable to walk due to an acute injury, such as due to a broken leg, and would therefore be eligible to move on to slaughter as a “U.S. Suspect.”

FSIS inspection program personnel are stationed at various points throughout the slaughter and processing operation.

Q. What is a nonambulatory “downer” animal and how are they handled?

A. Nonambulatory, disabled livestock are livestock that cannot rise from a recumbent position or that cannot walk, including those with broken appendages, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertebral column, or metabolic conditions.

Once an animal that is ambulatory has passed ante-mortem inspection and then becomes nonambulatory disabled, such an animal must be re-examined by the public health veterinarian to determine whether the animal can proceed to slaughter.

Ambulatory livestock with a broken leg should be driven as little as possible to prevent inhumane handling during ante-mortem inspection. If the animal is passed for slaughter, it should be handled as humanely as possible while moving to the stunning area. In some cases, it might be appropriate for the establishment to stun the animal in the pen area to minimize discomfort, rather than forcing it to walk to the stunning area.

Q. How does FSIS know that this is not happening at other establishments?

A. FSIS believes this to be an isolated incident of egregious violations to humane handling requirements and the prohibition of nonambulatory disabled cattle from entering the food supply.

FSIS inspection program personnel are trained to identify these behaviors and act immediately if they witness animals being handled in an inhumane manner and to prevent nonambulatory disabled cattle being moved to slaughter.

In 2007, FSIS issued a total of 66 suspensions to federally inspected establishments, 12 of which were for egregious humane handling violations witnessed by inspection program personnel.

Of the 6,200 federally inspected establishments, approximately 900 slaughter livestock and are therefore subject to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

In 2007, FSIS conducted approximately 167,540 humane handling verification activities that resulted in 691 noncompliance records (0.41 percent noncompliance rate) at these facilities. Noncompliance records for humane handling can be issued when the violation is less than egregious, such as not having water available in pens.

Q. What is the risk of contracting BSE infection from consuming this meat?

A. Negligible. All cattle at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company passed ante-mortem inspection before slaughter. While the federal government has multiple regulations regarding BSE in place, the prevalence of the disease in the United States is extremely low.

Since June 1, 2004, APHIS has sampled more than 759,000 animals and, to date, only two animals have tested positive for BSE under the program.

For more Questions and Answers about the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company recall, click here.

(Source: USDA)

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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