WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Humane Society of the United States said on Wednesday a California slaughterhouse was using a range of torture including "waterboarding" to prod unfit animals into the slaughterhouse so they could be processed into food that may have ended up in school lunch programs.
The Humane Society displayed a video from its own undercover, six-week investigation that it said showed abuse by workers at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co of Chino, California. However, the name of the plant was not visible in the video.
The video showed workers kicking cows, ramming them with forklift blades, applying electric shocks and even using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning so the animals would revive long enough to pass federal inspection.
"The attempt was to make them so distressed and to cause them so much suffering that these animals would get up and walk into the slaughterhouse," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, told reporters,
"We've heard a lot about waterboarding in 2007 as a torture technique and we saw this applied to these animals where a high pressure hose was put in the mouth and through the nose," he said, referring to a controversial technique used in the past by the CIA in its terrorism interrogation program.
The company was not immediately available for comment but said in a statement that operations had been suspended at the plant and two workers fired.
Pacelle said the plant supplies meat to the Westland Meat Co, which is the second-largest supplier of beef to the USDA Commodity Procurement Program Branch.
This branch distributes beef to needy families, the elderly and to more than 100,000 schools and child-care facilities nationwide under the national school lunch program.
"So we are talking about downed, injured animals being tormented and tortured. And we are also talking about, probably, an adulterated product," Pacelle said, adding the practice was in violation of federal and state laws.
He said the plant's use of injured and sick cows was not an isolated incident in the United States and he called on the USDA to tighten regulations regarding the ban on processing of "downer" cows.
Westland said in a statement that it had received the video from the Humane Society that showed two of its employees, since fired, "acting in disregard" of the company's standards. The supervisor was also suspended.
"We are shocked, saddened and sickened by what we have seen today," the company said in a statement posted on its Web site.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said he was convinced there was no health risk involved but the matter was being investigated.
"First of all, this issue is taken very seriously by the USDA employees responsible for this area," he told reporters. "Obviously, there is a full investigation and inspection going on today."
Besides the issue of animal abuse, the Humane Society believes the practice of using downer animals poses a risk to the nation's food supply. A high percentage of mad cow cases have come from downer animals and such cattle could also be prone to on passing other pathogens, particularly if allowed to wallow in manure.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, on Wednesday called for an immediate federal investigation into the safety of ground beef used in the school lunch program.
"The treatment of animals in the video is appalling, but more than that it raises significant concerns about the safety of the food being served to our nation's children," Durbin said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Charles Abbott in Washington; Editing by Christian Wiessner