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Hallmark/Westland CEO Cops to Slaughter of Sick Cows

Mar 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The head of Hallmark/Westland has admitted that the meatpacker slaughtered sick animals, but was unable to say if any of those "downer cows" made it into the food supply. Last month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company of Chino, California was recalling 143 million pounds—65 million kilos—of meat, following release of  a videotape of plant workers forcing unfit cattle—or “downer”—to slaughter.  Most of the meat has likely been consumed; at least 37 million pounds were used for school lunches and federal nutrition programs, according to the USDA.

Now, the head of Hallmark/Westland has given conflicting testimony about whether sick cows were slaughtered for human consumption.  In written testimony prepared for a congressional hearing, Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland, acknowledged two employees shown in a secretly taped video treated cows inhumanely, using a forklift and electric prods to get them to stand. The USDA forbids cows that cannot move on their own from being slaughtered because their illness may be indicative of a condition that renders their meat unfit for consumption, the most famous being Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.  Mendell at first denied allegations ill cattle were slaughtered for beef , but ultimately - and reluctantly -  admitted sick cattle might have entered the food supply in violation of federal rules.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel forced Mendell to view a second video showing workers dragging a sick cow to the "kill box" for slaughter. That video—one of over 50 submitted to the USDA—was secretly taped by an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States and was the crucial piece of the evidence that led the USDA to demand the recall.  Mendell claimed he had never seen the video, which was posted on the Humane Society's Web site and widely circulated on the Internet.

Representative Bart Stupak (Democrat-Michigan), panel chairman, asked if it would be logical to conclude from the videos that "two downer cows went into the nation's food supply."  "That would be logical, sir," Mendell replied.  Later, Mendell said he didn't know whether the animals were actually slaughtered.  He also said if they were slaughtered, they could have failed to pass post-slaughter inspection or not entered the food supply.  The testimony was the first time Mendell has appeared publicly to answer questions since the recall last month. He refused to testify earlier and was forced to testify this time under subpoena.

Mendell told the panel he became aware of inhumane treatment at his plant when a reporter called him in February about the video showing inhumane treatment of cows. "It is very graphic and very sickening to me, also," he told lawmakers.  After that, he said, the company installed 17 cameras to keep watch over workers in areas where cows were unloaded, penned, and killed.  A firm was hired to review the video continuously; additional experts would review it weekly.

Pressed on how well the company trained its workers, Mendell provided records showing the Humane Society investigator, who took an undercover job with Hallmark/Westland, had signed company statements that he had been trained in the humane handling of animals.  The Humane Society investigator told police in Chino that he never received formal training in the six weeks he worked at the plant.

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