The president of the slaughterhouse that caused the nation's largest meat recall went before Congress today with a prepared statement, but a video of the horrific treatment of cattle at the plant took his words away.
Before Westland Hallmark Meat Company president Steve Mendell could begin his testimony to the Energy and Commerce congressional oversight sub-committee, a U.S. Humane Society video of downer dairy cattle being abused at the slaughterhouse was played.
After seeing the video, Mendell was forced to back off some of his prepared testimony and he admitted that cows that were too sick to stand or walk were forced into our nation's food supply from his plant in Southern California.
Two shocking videos shot by an undercover operative showed cows being pushed, prodded, chained, pulled by a leg and run over by the forklift. The cattle were shocked, had water shot up their noses and were pushed into the box where they would be killed.
When the Humane Society released the videos earlier this year, it sparked a Department of Agriculture investigation of the slaughterhouse, and the government eventually ordered the recall of 143 million tons of beef.
The playing of the video at the subcommittee hearing raised the stakes for Mendell. It was no longer just a case of inhumane treatment, which he had admitted. The issue was now food safety, because two of the downer cows on the video had entered the food system.
"Has your company ever slaughtered or killed a downer cow?" sub-committee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., asked.
"I never thought we did," Mendell replied quietly.
He maintained that he had seen one of the Humane Society videos, but not a second one, which was shown today at the hearing. He said the USDA had never shown it to him.
"Would the USDA have discovered this without the Humane Society?" Stupak asked USDA representative Dr. Richard Raymond.
"I'd like to say yes, but no," Raymond said.
The Humane Society video gave the department the irrefutable evidence needed to proceed with the investigation and to recommend that Westland recall the beef.
Downer cows, non-ambulatory cattle, are not allowed into the U.S. food supply, according to USDA rules, because it is uncertain whether their illness is internal or external and because of concerns about mad cow disease.
Raymond testified that the incubation period for mad cow disease is about 13 years, but the likelihood of risk is "vanishing small." When asked what he meant by that, he replied, "It implies somewhere one in 10 million."
The Westland Hallmark meat plant, whose 143 million pounds of beef have been recalled, is now closed and unlikely to open.
"Our company is ruined," Mendell said. "We cannot continue. Approximately 220 company employees have lost their jobs."
His prepared testimony stated that he and his family have been receiving threats wishing him a death similar to the fate suffered by the cows at the company's slaughterhouse.