Meat Recall Prompts Questions of Unsafe Practices

A USDA probe investigates how it may have overlooked unsafe, cruel practices.

ByABC News
February 18, 2008, 4:38 PM

Feb. 18, 2008— -- Fallout from the dramatic and disturbing undercover video, of sick cows in a meat processing plant, continued Monday, as school districts across the country scrambled to destroy beef from the Hallmark/Westland meat packing company in California.

The recall comes after the government confirmed that so-called "downer cows" those so injured or sick, that they can't stand up were processed and entered into the nation's food supply.

A USDA veterinarian is supposed to check each downer cow and make sure it's not diseased, but that hasn't happened, according to the person who shot the incriminating undercover footage for the Humane Society. He asked ABC News to protect his identity.

"Any cow that went down, the first reaction of the pen manager was not to call a USDA inspector ... it was to get them up," he said.

"USDA's downed animal policy leaves a loophole that allows animals who become downed after entering the slaughterhouse, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and potentially used for human food," Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue group for farm animals, said. "In the absence of a clear policy, banning all downed animals from entering the food supply, there will continue to be problems."

There are about 900 slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the government has full-time inspectors at all of them. Some might ask, how can this happen? The allegation is that cattle inspections at this plant were predictable.

The Humane Society undercover investigator told ABC News that the inspector would come out at 6:30 in the morning, and 12:30 in the afternoon.

"So, that's approximately two hours outside in the pens, at a set time every day, and there's no fear of an inspector ever coming back out again. You can do whatever you want to those animals."

Dr. Kenneth Petersen of the USDA said, "I think it's fair for people to question how did we miss it, and that's obviously another central part of our investigation."

The USDA says its probe continues, but added it believes the problems at the plant were isolated.

"I think it was rare," Petersen said. "Most of the animals that are slaughtered there are perfectly healthy, and they proceed normally to slaughter."

Particularly troubling is that about a quarter of the recalled meat, which amounts to about 37 million pounds, went to schools and federal nutrition programs in 36 states. In the Grand Rapids school district, they'll have to destroy 10 tons of beef.