-- Thirty-four of the USA's 800 livestock slaughter plants have been temporarily shut down this year because government inspectors detected inhumane handling of animals — three times the number suspended for the same reason in all of 2007.
All the plants resumed operation after making fixes, says Alfred Almanza, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service.
The increased suspensions don't reflect worsening conditions but more uniform enforcement by USDA inspectors after cattle abuses were exposed in January at the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in California.
Acts at Westland — including moving cows with forklifts — were uncovered by an animal rights group, rather than USDA inspectors at the plant. The episode led to severe criticism of the agency and concerns that its inspectors weren't properly watching plants.
Westland/Hallmark recalled 143 million pounds of beef, the largest beef recall ever, and closed. It was a large supplier of beef to schools.
The USDA in March reminded inspectors of the importance of humane-handling checks and clarified abuses warranting suspension instead of a lesser sanction, says spokeswoman Amanda Eamich.
The 800 plants include those that slaughter cattle, pigs and other livestock.
The USDA also said Tuesday that it will no longer allow any cattle that can't walk to be slaughtered, reversing a 4-year-old practice. In Westland/Hallmark's case, the USDA found that, in addition to animal abuse, the plant didn't always have a USDA veterinarian clear such cattle for slaughter.
"Downer" cattle have been generally prohibited from the food supply since 2004 because they pose a greater risk of mad cow disease and bacterial contamination. Some could be slaughtered if a veterinarian determined they stood for an earlier inspection and went down shortly before slaughter due to a non-food safety injury, such as a broken leg.
The Humane Society of the United States, which exposed Westland/Hallmark by sending in an undercover worker with a camera, said allowing the slaughter of some non-ambulatory cattle encouraged the industry to push through unfit cattle, endangering the public and fostering inhumane treatment.
Westland President Steve Mendell testified before Congress in March that some cattle had been illegally slaughtered. A USDA official testified that some probably entered the food supply.
The new ban on non-ambulatory cattle will affect about 1,000 cattle a year. The USDA says 34 million are slaughtered annually. It also says no other plants improperly slaughtered non-ambulatory cattle.
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society, says he doubts Westland was "an isolated case."
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said the rule change would eliminate confusion, increase consumer confidence and improve humane handling of non-ambulatory cattle because there would be no incentive to get them to market.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of an agriculture committee, said in a statement that it would also "move the ball forward on food safety."