By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Employees at the now-closed Southern California slaughterhouse where inhumane treatment of cows was captured on a gruesome undercover video committed "egregious violations" of federal animal care regulations, the U.S. Agriculture Department has determined.
The agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service formally withdrew its inspectors from Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino on Monday after verifying the mistreatment and discovering other problems at the plant, an agency official said yesterday.
"They've got some obvious multilevel issues," said Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator of field operations, which inspects the nation's 6,200 meat processing plants. "For them to get out from under this, they are going to have to explain what exactly happened, why it happened and what are the multiple measures they're going to put in place to prevent it from happening again."
The problems came to light last week when the Humane Society of the United States released video footage taken by a Hallmark employee who was working undercover for the Washington-based animal welfare group. The film showed workers using chains to drag cows unable to stand; shoving and rolling crippled cows with forklifts; and rampant use of electric prods to drive infirm animals to slaughter.
Under state and federal regulations and laws, livestock must be treated humanely, and only animals that can walk under their own power can be slaughtered -- a way of minimizing the chances that diseased animals will enter the food supply.
Westland Meat, a partner of Hallmark, has been a major supplier of beef for the nation's school lunch program and other federal food programs. The Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which had contracted with Westland for the school lunch program, suspended that relationship Jan. 30 when the video was released. That effectively shuttered Hallmark, Petersen said, since AMS was the company's major client.
School systems and other outlets across the country scrambled to pull the company's products.
On Monday, after several days at the plant, federal investigators concluded that the video was authentic. They also found that the company did not have adequate policies to assure humane treatment and that some policies it did have -- such as one requiring that livestock unable to stand be rejected -- were ignored. Petersen said at least one worker or official at the plant "made some admission of guilt."
Petersen said the department's Office of the Inspector General is also investigating. It can subpoena evidence and refer findings to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
Lawrence Miller, director of business affairs at Hallmark, said only two employees violated rules and both have been fired. No supervisor or manager was aware of the mistreatment, he said.
Miller said the company is preparing to implement "drastic measures" to prevent any future violations, including psychological screening of employees and continuous video camera surveillance. Miller insisted, as has company head Steve Mendell, that Hallmark has never been found in violation of USDA rules since the current management team took over in 1998.
But USDA records indicate the company was cited in 2005 for several animal welfare violations, including "too much electric prodding."
Asked how that comported with his claim of no citations, Miller said he was unaware of it.
"We certainly wouldn't have failed to disclose that if we knew it was in the public record," he said. "You know more than we do."
Julie Janovsky of Farm Sanctuary, a Watkins Glen, N.Y.-based group that filmed the use of forklifts on livestock at Hallmark in 1993, called for better federal oversight: "It is obvious that the USDA needs to significantly increase its enforcement of laws to protect downed animals across the country."
Petersen would not predict how long it might be before the plant was brought into compliance.
"It's in their court," he said. "If they respond tomorrow, that's fine with me. If they respond in a month, that's fine with me."