A hidden camera investigation by an animal rights group has uncovered disturbing treatment of ailing cows at a California slaughterhouse that provides meat for school lunches.
The video, obtained during what the Humane Society of the United States said was a six-week undercover investigation, shows a sickly cow being dragged by a chain before being poked, prodded, rolled and lifted with a forklift. Workers also are seen hosing the faces of cows in a manner that HSUS described as "torture, right out of a waterboarding manual."
An HSUS official said its investigator confirmed that at least some of the animals in the video were "spent dairy cows," allegedly sold for meat after they had grown too old and sick to produce milk, and that they were slaughtered for use in the human food supply.
HSUS says Westland Meat Company, which owns the slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif., is the No. 2 supplier of beef to a USDA program that "distributes the beef to needy families, the elderly, and also to schools, through the National School Lunch Program."
According to documents provided by HSUS, Westland was named a USDA "supplier of the year" for 2004-05. HSUS says the company "has delivered beef to schools in 36 states. More than 100,000 schools and child care facilities nationwide receive meat through the lunch program."
Such treatment of cows is generally considered abuse and is prohibited. But slaughtering such sick cattle — known as "downers" — also is banned to protect humans from contracting mad cow disease. The USDA considers its enforcement of the ban aggressive; HSUS says it's actually riddled with holes.
"Downed animals may be falling through the cracks as a result of poor oversight, anemic enforcement, and a loophole created by inconsistent agency regulations," the group says.
Both the USDA and the meat packer responded quickly to the allegations.
The president of Westland and of Hallmark Meat Packing Co., where the video was recorded, said today two employees were fired, and a supervisor was suspended "pending his explanation."
"We are shocked, saddened and sickened by what we have seen today," Westland's president Steve Mendell said in a prepared statement posted on the company's Web site. "Operations have been immediately suspended until we can meet with all of our employees, and be assured these sorts of activities never again happen at our facility."
Mendell's plant is now under investigation by the USDA. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has asked the USDA's inspector general to look into violations at the facility, but he assured the public that the episode was not reason for public alarm.
In the interim, Schafer said he has "indefinitely suspended" Westland Meat Company from supplying meat to federal food programs, and all food from Westland that is already in the pipeline has been placed "on administrative hold."
In a prepared statement released late today, Schafer said he's "deeply concerned" about the allegations. But he's also disappointed in the Humane Society.
"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," Schafer said. "Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time."
Humane Society officials said they did take action.
"The HSUS turned over, to appropriate California law enforcement officials, extensive videotape evidence, once the investigation was concluded," Wayne Pacelle, president of the group, responded to Schafer's barb. "Local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information."
Pacelle also asked the USDA to go further than just suspending operations at Westland, and is calling for the plant to be "locked up and shut down."
Westland and the USDA also may be forced to answer questions on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, one of the most vocal critics of the nation's food safety program in Congress, e-mailed reporters today with a threat to hold a hearing that looks into "USDA policies" that "are allowing slaughtering and processing plants to use the National School Lunch Program as a dumping ground for bad meat."