By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told Congress yesterday that he would not endorse an outright ban on "downer" cows entering the food supply or back stiffer penalties for regulatory violations by meat-processing plants in the wake of the largest beef recall in the nation's history.
Appearing at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Schafer said the department is investigating why it missed the inhumane treatment of cattle at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., including workers administering electric shocks and high-intensity water sprays to downer cows -- those too sick or weak to stand without assistance.
The secretary announced interim steps such as more random inspections of slaughterhouses and more frequent unannounced audits of the nearly two dozen plants that process meat for federal school lunch programs.
But he deflected calls from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), the subcommittee chairman, for the government to ban all downer cows from the food supply, increase penalties for violators and require installation of 24-hour surveillance cameras in processing plants.
"The penalties are strong and swift, as we have shown," Schafer said. "Financially, I don't see how this company can survive. People need to be responsible and, from USDA's standpoint, they will be held responsible. . . . They broke the rules. That does not mean the rules are wrong. I believe the rules are adequate."
The hearing came 11 days after Agriculture officials ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of beef processed by Westland/Hallmark, including 37 million pounds that had gone to school lunch and other public nutrition programs. No illnesses have been linked to the recalled meat.
The recall was prompted by the release last month of secretly recorded video footage of the inhumane treatment made by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society, who wore a special video camera under his clothes while working at the plant last year. The company has been closed since Feb. 4, when the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service withdrew inspectors from the slaughterhouse after verifying the mistreatment shown on the videotape and discovering other problems.
"These images exposed wholly unacceptable gaps in American meat inspection systems," Kohl said. "Despite the presence of five inspectors at the Westland/Hallmark plant, blatant violations had evidently occurred for some time. . . . I think we need a more foolproof system."
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, a trade association, called the Westland/Hallmark plant "an anomaly, an extreme circumstance."
Government regulations prohibit slaughtering cattle for food if the animals cannot stand or walk on their own. An inspecting veterinarian had said the Hallmark cattle were healthy enough to be used for food, but they subsequently collapsed. Federal regulations require that such animals be reexamined by a veterinarian and slaughtered separately, but that apparently was not done, officials said.
Cows that cannot stand up are supposed to be kept out of the food supply in part because they may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. The disease is extremely rare in the United States, but of the 15 cases documented in North America, most in Canada, the majority have been traced to downer cattle.
In 2004, after a downer cow slaughtered in Washington state was found to have the disease, then-Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced a ban on the sale of meat from downer cattle. At the time, 44 nations had closed their borders to U.S. beef over safety concerns. But the department later changed the rules to allow the slaughter of downer cattle if a USDA veterinarian examines them a second time and finds that the cows did not remain on the ground because of an illness.
"I do believe there are cases where downer animals can be approved by the veterinarian and put into the food supply," Schafer said. "They are not sick."
The Humane Society, which believes all downers should be banned, sued the USDA this week over that policy, calling it a "dangerous loophole."
"We need a rigorous inspections program because reckless behavior by a single company can have national and global implications," Wayne Pacelle, the group's president, told the Senate panel. "How many other crises, recalls and public scares can we tolerate before we adopt an unambiguous policy of combating mad cow in the food supply? . . . We need a bright line on this."