Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Undercover video of inhumane handling at Central Valley Meat Co., a California slaughterhouse that supplies beef to the nation’s school lunch program, doesn’t show injured “downer” cattle entering the food supply, U.S. regulators said.
The Agriculture Department is investigating whether cattle that were too sick to stand or walk were slaughtered, a practiced banned because of the risks for mad cow disease, after receiving a video from an animal welfare group that showed mistreatment of the cows.
“Our top priority is to ensure the safety of the food Americans feed their families,” Alfred Almanza, administrator of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said yesterday in a statement. “We have reviewed the video and determined that, while some of the footage provided shows unacceptable treatment of cattle, it does not show anything that would compromise food safety. Therefore, we have not substantiated a food safety violation at this time.”
Cattle that can’t walk any time prior to slaughter must be humanely euthanized and discarded so as not to enter the food supply. The facility in Hanford, California, was shut down Aug. 19 after regulators received video of slaughter practices and confirmed “inhumane handling violations,” the agency said on Aug. 20. No meat has been recalled.
Downed and spent dairy cows stumbling and struggling to walk are shown in the video seen by Bloomberg News from the Washington-based group, Compassion Over Killing. Workers are shown pulling or lifting the livestock by their tails.
The footage was taken over two weeks from June 18 to July 2 with a hidden camera showing actions, such as excessive force to get animals to move, that violate federal guidelines aimed at protecting the food supply, Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, said in an interview.
“We believe they violated the guidelines,” she said.
The animal-rights group’s methods are similar to how the Humane Society of the U.S. obtained undercover video that led to the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of meat from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., also a supplier to the U.S. school lunch program. That recall occurred partly because of concern that downed cattle had been slaughtered.
The Central Valley plant was shut down because the USDA immediately suspended the assignment of inspectors to the establishment and is withholding marks of inspection necessary for sale. All handling activities are done under continuous inspection by USDA personnel.
The USDA directed its Office of the Inspector General to investigate the allegations. A team, including veterinarians who specialize in humane handling, were sent to Central Valley Meat to determine if egregious inhumane handling of livestock occurred.
Brian Coelho, president of Central Valley Meat, said he couldn’t comment on the video because it hadn’t been shared with the company.
“We are extremely disturbed to be informed by the USDA that inspection was suspended and our plant could not operate based upon a videotape that was provided to the department by a third party group that alleged inhumane treatment of animals on our property,” Coelho said Aug. 20 in a statement.
A person answering the telephone yesterday at Central Valley Meat declined to give their name or provide any information about the company. Compassion Over Killing yesterday posted video footage on its website.
There have been four cases in the U.S. of cattle with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, with the most recent discovery confirmed by the USDA on April 24 in a dairy cow. The first was discovered in December 2003, and U.S. beef exports tumbled 82 percent to 460.3 million pounds during the next 12 months as dozens of countries banned the product, government data show. Most trade has resumed.
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