Undercover video leads to outcry on meat safety

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By Consumers Union on Friday, February 15th, 2008


The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) conducted an undercover video investigation of the Hallmark Meat Packing plant, which supplies meat to Westland Meat Company. The video reveals graphic footage of the way animals were handled at this USDA award-winning Supplier of the Year.

Westland supplied over 27 million pounds of meat (PDF) to schools and federal programs in 36 states. Was your community on the list?

“Downer” cows, too sick or weak to stand cannot enter the food supply under both California state and federal law. “Downer” cows may have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, or they may spread bacterial diseases such as E. coli and Salmonella, which make millions of Americans sick every year.

Several lawmakers have spoken publicly about the video’s content, including Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who sent two letters to the USDA asking for further investigation of the food safety of ground beef in the National School Lunch Program. Said Durbin:

The apparent slaughter of sick and weak animals not only appears to violate the USDA regulations, but could be a danger to our nation’s food supply. These ‘downer’ animals are more easily contaminated and may carry diseases dangerous to consumers.

In response to the HSUS video, Westland President and Hallmark’s operations manager Steve Mendell told ABC7 news: “We are shocked, saddened, and sickened by what we have seen today.” Then to the Washington Post: “We have a massive humane treatment program here that we follow to the n {+t}{+h} 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.”

So if the slaughterhouse manager wasn’t around to see any law-breaking, where was the USDA inspector? With 7,800 pairs of eyes overseeing the 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation, surely one of them would have caught it. Right?

Food safety expert, and former advisor to the FDA and the USDA, Dean Cliver, told the LA Times: “We rely on a system, and the system dropped the ball. Somebody ought to be asking some questions.” Although the USDA has yet to confirm that any downer cattle entered the food supply, the video and HSUS allegation of inhumane treatment prompted the agency to stop shipments and to shut down until it proves the animals are “humanely handled.”

Schools across the nation responded to the Westland beef suspension. California school authorities told their districts to stop using Westland meat and other beef products from unknown sources. New York City schools went burger-free.

The western producer newspaper, Capital Press, cautions that such severe violations of animal husbandry standards will shake consumer confidence:

If someone tries to skirt the law and disregards proper animal care practices, it reflects on everyone. Consumer confidence and trust are difficult to build, but they can vanish in an instant if people question the safety of their food. Scofflaws cannot be tolerated anywhere in agriculture. The quicker they are rooted out, the better for all concerned.

According to Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society President, lawmakers should do more to protect the food supply:

The USDA gets millions of dollars in taxpayer funds from Congress and the American people every year to inspect the plants and enforce the law. It’s a tough job to be sure, but the USDA should focus on investigating this plant and, in a larger sense, correcting its own procedures and policies that allowed these atrocious practices to occur—on the USDA’s watch, I might add.

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