WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A California meatpacker caught torturing cattle and processing the unfit animals for human consumption is provoking calls for reform that could prove hard to ignore.
The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co announced on Sunday it wanted back nearly 143 million pounds (65 million kilograms) of meat -- enough to feed more than 2.2 million Americans for a year -- that it had shipped out since February 2006.
But the wrongdoings at the plant were not exposed under the watchful eye of inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead, the Humane Society of the United States captured employees in a gruesome, undercover videotape that was made after an apparent random decision to investigate the plant located in Chino, California.
While the recall was a record and dwarfs all previous orders by the department, the USDA said most of the meat has probably been consumed and that the risk to the public was minimal. USDA has estimated at least 37 million lbs of the meat were bought for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs.
But the USDA now faces growing calls for a better system since the violations of using sick or “downer” cattle occurred under the noses of the department’s inspectors.
“I know USDA is doing a really good job downplaying what happened here,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, a director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “This isn’t a little thing. This was a fundamental failure of their inspection program.”
DeWall and a number of experts worry the California case was not an isolated incident in the 6,000 federally inspected U.S. plants, involving some 7,800 inspectors.
“It really demonstrates how our food safety inspection system has collapsed,” U.S. House of Representative Rosa DeLauro, and Chairwoman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said on a teleconference call.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest farm group, said the meat recall should only be the first step as the USDA works to ensure that safeguards are followed to protect the food supply.
“This situation is not acceptable and should not be tolerated at any facility processing beef for human consumption,” said Stallman.
USDA maintains the U.S. still enjoys one of the safest food systems in the world and the recall was made because of a violation of the rules, rather than an immediate health risk.
“Our FSIS inspectors are present, not only daily in this plant, but continuously as they are at all beef slaughter facilities, to assure among other things that ... specified risk materials are removed in compliance with our regulations,” Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond told reporters shortly before announcing the recall.
Hallmark/Westland has been closed since early February. Since the video was released, USDA has put a “hold” on all of its products and suspended the company indefinitely as a supplier to federal nutrition programs.
Beef is America’s top choice for protein and the country consumed some 28.1 billion lbs worth of beef in 2007.
But confidence in the industry has been shaken at home and worldwide. The world shut its doors to U.S. beef when the country discovered its first case of mad cow in 2003. And last year, there was a sharp rise in meat recalls in the United States involving a deadly strain of E. Coli.
The Humane Society of the United States sparked an uproar over the meatpacking plant when it released the lurid videotape showing plant workers were gouging, kicking and forcing water into the noses of cattle in order to get the animals upright.
Only cattle that can stand are considered fit to be inspected, a rule considered especially critical in preventing processing of cows infected with mad cow disease.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said he has long been concerned that the use of downer cattle was a widespread industry practice and now is more worried after the group found such abuse despite picking the California plant at random.
“If this was our first deep dive into a cattle slaughter plant and we found these gross abuses, then it would be highly unlikely that we would not find similar abuses at some of the of the plants,” Pacelle told Reuters.
Pacelle said tough measures are needed to overhaul the inspections system, including closing a loophole that allows the use of some downer cattle and he urged Congress to pass already proposed legislation to cement the policy. He said the next step will be to revamp the inspection process.
“We need more boots on the ground in the handling and pre-slaughter areas of the plant. We need a more unpredictable presence, rather than showing up at standard times so the plant personnel know exactly when they are coming.”
Some critics contend inspections should be handed to another agency as the USDA has a conflict of interest as it is also a promoter of agriculture products. And the USDA might be increasingly busy shoring up confidence in the sector.
“I think it was meant to be a shock to industry, a wake-up call that says ‘hey there is apparent abuse of animals in the slaughter operations and this has to be addressed and fixed,” said Michael Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
Editing by Marguerita Choy