The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday that it would step up oversight at 900 slaughterhouses in the USA to check for inhumane handling violations like those that led to the biggest meat recall ever on Sunday.
“I don’t have reason to believe this is widespread. But the extra checks will give us a better handle on it,” said Kenneth Petersen, USDA assistant administrator.
RECORD BEEF RECALL: Staggering 143 million pounds targeted; some went to school lunches
Westland/Hallmark Meat of Chino, Calif., recalled 143 million pounds of beef manufactured over two years after a USDA investigation sparked by abuses uncovered by the Humane Society of the United States. The USDA found that Westland did not always alert federal inspectors when cows that passed an initial USDA inspection became unable to walk before they were slaughtered.
Such “downer” cattle are supposed to be excluded from the U.S. food supply because they’re at higher risk of carrying mad cow disease, which affects the brain, and E. coli and salmonella bacteria.
The USDA says the recall poses minimal risk to consumers because mad cow disease is so rare and the plant followed other mad-cow prevention measures. Only three cases in cattle have been found in the USA. More than 750,000 have been sampled. The USDA also says that most of the meat has likely been consumed, with no illness reports, and that the abuses represent an “isolated incident.”
But the Humane Society, which deployed an undercover worker with a video camera that captured workers using electric prods and forklifts to force downed animals to slaughter, said it selected the plant randomly. It questioned how officials can be sure other plants aren’t doing similar things.
“This is typical U.S. Department of Agriculture overconfidence and an attempt to assure the public when it really doesn’t have that assurance,” said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s CEO.
USDA inspectors check cattle headed to slaughter to see if they can walk. If cattle pass and then go down, they must be checked again. They can be slaughtered if they’ve suffered an injury, such as a broken leg, and don’t pose a food-safety risk. Of 11,000 cattle slaughtered monthly at the plant, the USDA banned 30 to 40 downers, an average number, Petersen says.
Of the 143 million pounds of beef, 37 million went to school lunch programs and other federal nutrition programs. No downers are allowed in school programs.
The Humane Society says it found that the USDA inspector showed up predictably, twice a day, at the Westland plant, and workers committed the abuses when he wasn’t there. Petersen says the inspector did random checks over a 90-minute period per day. Those checks will be ramped up at other plants for weeks, he says. The Westland plant is closed. Officials did not return calls for comment.