“The plant needs to shoulder the blame, but responsibility also resides with whoever decided to put those cattle on the truck and send them to the plant,” says Terry Engelken, associate professor of beef cattle medicine in the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

He's talking about the now infamous video of Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company (HWMP) employees abusing non-ambulatory dairy cows awaiting harvest. The video released by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) prompted USDA to recall 143 million lbs. of frozen ground beef Feb. 17 — the largest recall in U.S. history. It encompasses two years of HWMP production, much of it likely already consumed.

The recall was what the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) terms a Class II recall, meaning the probability of adverse health consequences from consuming the product are “remote” (vs. “non-existent” for Class III or “reasonable” for Class I). USDA's rationale for the recall was the video revealed that non-ambulatory cattle — prohibited from the human food supply as a precaution against BSE — could have been processed.

Who's minding the store?

How could such egregious animal abuse happen at a federally inspected beef packing plant if it was being inspected?

According to Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Office of Field Operations, about 7,800 USDA personnel provide inspections at about 6,200 federally inspected establishments — about 600 of them are in beef-harvest facilities. Last year, 12 establishments were suspended for egregious humane-handling violations witnessed by inspection personnel. Another 650 inhumane practices were documented.

“Every head of livestock that comes to slaughter in the U.S. is inspected prior to slaughter, what we call ante-mortem, by either one of my public-health veterinarians or one of our inspectors,” Petersen explains. “They ensure the animal is suitable to proceed to slaughter. Some animals we condemn on ante-mortem; most animals pass ante-mortem inspection and proceed into slaughter. Inspectors regularly observe the handling of animals at any time before, during and after that ante-mortem inspection, and we take immediate control if we observe any humane-handling violations.”

However, at HWMP, a single-shift plant (eight hours), Petersen also said, “We're spending about 1½ hours/day, again randomly throughout the day, doing these humane-handling assessments, in addition to our routine ante-mortem inspection.”

FSIS regulations stipulate that cattle must be re-inspected if they become non-ambulatory after passing initial ante-mortem inspection. Plant personnel are required to notify an FSIS veterinarian for re-inspection. That apparently didn't happen in the HWMP case.

Pending conclusion of USDA's investigation, FSIS implemented interim actions in March to verify humane-handling activities at all federally inspected facilities, including the amount of time allocated per shift for inspection personnel to “verify humane-handling activities and to verify those activities in ante-mortem areas.”

Who needs the schooling?

But, Engelken wonders, why would cows in such condition ever be shipped? After viewing the video, Engelken says it's obvious the cattle were made non-ambulatory by a condition that existed before they reached the plant.

There are about 100 Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs in the U.S., according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). If anyone doubts their worth, Engelken says one needs to only look at the progress documented in National Beef Quality Audits of fed and non-fed cattle. Injection-site lesions, bruising and the like have been drastically reduced.

In recent years, BQA programs have expanded to encompass handling and animal-welfare components, as well. There are now transportation guidelines for humane handling, and major retailers demand packer-suppliers follow standardized humane-handling procedures.

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, J. Patrick Boyle, American Meat Institute (AMI) president, explained AMI's humane-handling efforts, including the first industry-specific, animal-handling guidelines, which were developed in 1991.

“All efforts must be taken to minimize the arrival of ‘downers’ at the slaughter facility,” Boyle said. “Our industry must lead an effort to enroll all beef and dairy producers in the BQA and Dairy Quality Assurance Programs to maintain herd health and assure that only those animals that will pass federal-inspection requirements are sent to slaughter. Specifically, the use of audits to measure animal welfare should be encouraged. In addition, livestock dealers and brokers should be required to provide documented training for employees in proper animal handling and transporting of animals.”

In the wake of the recall, NCBA called upon all industry associations to re-circulate livestock-care and handling guidelines to their members and strongly encourage them to ensure sound animal-handling practices are in place (see “Animal handling basics”).

“At the very least, I hope this event creates renewed discussion about the importance of humane handling and shipping only cattle fit to be transported,” Engelken says.

“This shouldn't be viewed as some kind of ‘beef vs. dairy’ conflict. This is truly a basic animal-welfare issue that needs to be continuously addressed through long-term planning and educational programs.”

Why recall so much?

Even William Marler has wondered publicly why so much beef was recalled when no illnesses related to it have been reported. He's a prominent personal injury and products liability lawyer who began litigating food-borne illness cases in 1993.

Boyle adds: “There's no doubt rules matter and violations should have consequences. And for Hallmark/Westland there are severe consequences. But from a public-health perspective, risks matter, too.

“In the future, under these circumstances, I believe USDA would be better advised to conduct an appropriate risk assessment before determining whether it should require a nationwide recall of a product when, according to USDA Secretary Schafer, ‘there is no reason to believe there's anything wrong with (the) beef.’ ”

HSUS liability

Apparently, HSUS had video and information about the abuse violations for an extended period before making them public. It was an undercover HSUS worker who did the filming. What culpability exists when you know of such illegality and don't say anything until it fits your political agenda?

“It's unfortunate HSUS didn't present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in fall 2007. Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time,” explained USDA's Schafer, soon after the video came to light.

Early on, HSUS representatives claimed they “turned over to appropriate California law-enforcement officials extensive videotape evidence once the investigation was concluded. Local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information.”

More recently, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a food issues watchdog group, asked the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to review testimony to that same effect made under oath by HSUS staff in order to determine if perjury was committed. CCF reports the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office refutes asking HSUS to withhold the videotape.

“The original delay was unacceptable, prolonged a bad practice and complicated the federal investigation,” says Mark Dopp, AMI senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel. “This additional delay in turning over other relevant information is unconscionable. It's created weeks of uncertainty and needless concern for school districts nationwide.”

Animal-handling basics

Though non-ambulatory cattle are rare, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association offers these humane-handling guidelines:

  • A prompt diagnosis should be made to determine whether the animal should be humanely euthanized or receive additional care.

  • Provide feed and water to non-ambulatory cattle at least once daily.

  • Move downer animals very carefully to avoid compromising animal welfare. Dragging is unacceptable. Nor should animals be lifted with chains onto transportation conveyances. Acceptable methods of transporting downers include a sled, low-boy trailer or in the bucket of a loader. Animals should be humanely rolled into the bucket by caretakers.

  • When treatment is attempted, cattle unable to sit up unaided (i.e., lie flat on their side) and refuse to eat or drink should be humanely euthanized within 24-36 hours of initial onset.

  • Even though signs of a more favorable prognosis may exist, non-ambulatory cattle must not be sent to a livestock market or processing facility.