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USDA: No Evidence Downer Cows Entered Food Supply

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing to investigate Central Valley Meat in Hanford, California after undercover video showed culled dairy cows being abused at the plant, but the agency said late Tuesday that there is no evidence that sick or lame cows were slaughtered for human consumption.

Late last week, animal rights group Compassion Over Killing gave USDA an extended version of a video they say was shot by one of their investigators who worked at the plant. After reviewing the footage, USDA determined that, while there is evidence of “egregious” humane handling violations, there is no evidence that lame animals were entering the food supply.

So-called “downer” cattle, those unable to stand or walk, are not legally allowed to be slaughtered for human consumption, in part because of the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection service said it was conducting a “thorough investigation that encompasses food safety and will respond appropriately to its results.”

In April, the USDA confirmed that a downer dairy cow sent to a rendering plant, not a slaughter facility, tested positive for BSE. Downer cattle can be rendered into pet food or poultry feed, but are not allowed to be used in ruminant feed or human food to reduce the risk of BSE transmission.

“Our top priority is to ensure the safety of the food Americans feed their families,” said Al Almanza, Administrator of FSIS. “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. We are aggressively continuing to investigate the allegations.”

As recently as 2009, Central Valley Meat was one of the top three suppliers of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, but USDA did not respond to questions Tuesday about whether Central Valley Meat is still supplying the National School Lunch Program or about how much meat the company may be selling to federal nutrition programs annually.

ABC News reported that the company currently holds a $3.8 million, two-month contract with the government.

Shortly after learning about the video, popular fast food chain In-N-Out Burger announced they had severed ties with Central Valley Meat, which had previously been supplying between 20 and 30 percent of the chain’s beef.

The graphic excerpt of the undercover video posted online, which was reviewed by Food Safety News, shows cows before slaughter covered in dirt and feces, some of them writhing on the ground and bleeding on themselves after being bolted repeatedly, but not rendered senseless. Several cows are shown projectile vomiting, presumably from stress, while being hit repeatedly with the bolt gun.

One cow is shown being suffocated by a worker who stands on the animal’s snout. Some cows seem to survive the bolt gun and get sent down the assembly line still thrashing as they are strung upside down before being bled out. Another clip shows cows being sprayed with hot water and electrically prodded to move them.

Generally speaking, public health veterinarians are charged with observing all animals headed to slaughter — both in motion and at rest — to declare them fit for human consumption. But, as former undersecretary for food safety Richard Raymond explained to Food Safety News, “That does not mean they are out in the pens 24/7.”

While many have questioned whether the FSIS inspectors on site were doing their jobs appropriately, Raymond said it’s likely that the inspectors and the public health veterinarian on hand were doing their jobs, but perhaps were not monitoring the pens where the alleged abuse took place.

Some companies, including Cargill, are now employing around-the-clock video monitoring to ensure that there is no mistreatment of animals, especially after the 2008 scandal involving Hallmark/Westland, which was also a major supplier of the National School Lunch Program. Undercover footage shot by the Humane Society of the United States showed non-ambulatory cows being grossly mistreated, sparking outrage among consumers and animal welfare advocates. The footage prompted the largest ever meat recall in history — 143 million pounds of ground beef — after most of it was eaten.

“It’s unfortunate when something like this happens,” said Raymond, who was undersecretary during the Hallmark/Westland incident. “You would think that this particular segment of the industry would have learned their lesson from Hallmark/Westland, but they apparently haven’t. It’s bad for industry, it’s bad for agriculture, and I don’t feel bad for Central Valley Meat. I didn’t feel bad for Hallmark/Westland. It’s their responsibility to ensure these violations do not happen.”

Like Hallmark/Westland, Central Valley Meat primarily slaughters dairy cows that are no longer productive. According to Raymond, these cows have a tendency to go down because they are 10 to 12 years old, quite old compared to the 30 month old steers raised for beef production.

“They’re not in the best of the health.. and sometimes they have some mastitis,” said Raymond.

Central Valley Meat Co. responded Monday by saying that it was cooperating fully with the USDA investigation.

“At Central Valley Meat Co., ensuring that the livestock we process are treated humanely is critically important,” said Brian Coelho, president of the company, in a statement. “Our company seeks not just to meet federal humane handling regulations, but to exceed them.”

Coelho said he was “extremely disturbed” to be told by USDA of the allegations, but could not comment directly on what was in the video because it had not yet been shared with his company.

James Andrews contributed reporting to this piece.

© Food Safety News
  • Joan Bradley

    If Mr. Coelho, Pres. of Central Valley
    Meat Co., would “put his money where his mouth is,” he’d be out there as an “undercover boss,” along with some of his colleagues, investigating first-hand how his company is doing its job. Get off your duff, Mr. Coelho!

  • Jed

    Yeah …right…
    They get caught red handed on video abusing and killing downer, sick cows, and now the USDA tries to cover it up by stating there’s “no evidence” that the abused, half dead on their feet, sick cows “entered the food supply”! So what are they doing with the cows, killing them for fun?
    Then the USDA spin doctor goes on to excuse the government by saying, despite the fact that this is a USDA inspected plant, which means at least one full time inspector is suppossed to be on duty all the time the plant is operating — “we can’t be there 24/7”!
    TRANSLATION: “We aren’t doing our job”.
    ALL the company — and USDA employees involved — (including supervisors) needs to be fired, and the meat plant needs to be slapped with a HUGE fine. Plus, as the 3rd largest supplier to the USDA the company should lose their lucrative and Highly Subsidized school lunch program contracts feeding our kids.
    But instead USDA says “Don’t Worry — Be Happy — there’s no problem here.” Yeah right, that’s just what happens when our regulatory agencies pander to industry…..

  • Minkpuppy

    Jed:
    You lack a basic understanding of how USDA inspection works. USDA inspectors are not in slaughter plants “24/7” because they do not slaughter or process around the clock. Slaughter plants this size usually run 1 shift which is about 8-12 hours at the most for 5-6 days a week. We are not allowed to be there if the plant is only receiving/holding animals in the yards for the next day’s processing.
    The inspectors do their job to the extent they are allowed to do it and being on premises around the clock just isn’t allowed unless there’s animals being run into the knock box. Euthanizing an animal in the suspect/condemned pen during off hours is not the same thing as processing/operating.
    When they are on duty, The PHV’s and offline inspectors have multiple duties besides going out into the yards to check the animals. They have to conduct post-mortem inspections, sampling and sanitation inspections as well as a gazillion other things that they’ll get their butt chewed over in addition to ante-mortem and humane handling. They can’t physically be everywhere at once unless they’re clones or have the ability to time travel. If you think they can, then you’re onto a secret we’d all love to have. I never seem to have enough time in my day to do everything I need to get done.
    Blame Congress for this, not the inspectors. USDA doesn’t have designated humane slaughter/handling inspectors to stand out there 24/7 because CONGRESS DIDN’T FUND IT OR MANDATE IT. The inspectors have to try to do that AND everything else they’re expected to do.
    There will be no fines BECAUSE CONGRESS DIDN’T MANDATE IT. USDA has never been able to levy fines on meat processing plants for violations. It’s a damn shame too because I know a few that would do a little more to stay out of trouble if they got hit in the pocket book every time they had a noncompliance.
    My understanding is that the video did not actually show any of the downer animals being taken into the plant for processing. Therefore, there is no undisputable evidence that the claims that it happened are true. Unless they have video following an easily identifiable downer through the slaughter process from yard to processing line then there’s no proof that any did hit the food supply.
    If USDA were to order a recall of product without solid evidence of downers in the food chain, they open themselves up to all kinds of liability and the possibility that a lawsuit ruling by a pro-industry judge will take even more of their limited authority away from them. It’s called “DUE PROCESS” and even law-breaking meat plants have a right to it. USDA has to gather more evidence before they can act on the downer claims. COK’s video apparently falls short of that proof. Call it pandering to industry if you want, but that’s the facts, Jack.

  • federal microbiologist

    HOURS of video of operations at the Central Valley Meat Co. were taken by the undercover ‘Compassion Over Killing’ operative.
    So…… I’m supposed to be reassured to know that the 4 MINUTES released so far by CoK……
    “…..did not actually show any of the downer animals being taken into the plant for processing. Therefore, there is no undisputable evidence that the claims that it happened are true.”
    But….is there undisputable evidence that no Downers at any time entered the human food chain at Central Valley ?
    In other words, video footage or not, do I trust the FSIS Inspectors and the Central Valley Meat Co. employees to NOT permit downers to enter the human food chain (i.e., In and Out Burger) ?
    If the FSIS inspectors weren’t ‘around’ to catch the mistreatment of the cattle documented on the video, I’m supposed to believe that they WERE ‘around’ to make sure Downers didn’t enter the human food chain ?
    I’m wondering what the hours of video not posted on the internet, will show about Downers and their Fate at Central Valley.
    But even if those hours of video don’t happen to conclusively document a Downer entering the human food chain, I’m not going to be reassured. According to CoK, the video footage was gathered over a two-week interval. What goes on at Central Valley the other months / years when an undercover operative isn’t there to document it ?
    Plenty of time for a Downer or two to enter the chain.
    As far as I’m concerned, Central Valley is presumed to have placed Downers in the food chain – unless THEY can conclusively document the opposite.

  • The meat/dairy/egg industries spends hundreds of millions of dollars lying to the public about their product. But no amount of false propaganda can sanitize meat. The facts are absolutely clear: Eating meat is bad for human health, catastrophic for the environment, and a living nightmare for animals. There’s never been more compelling reasons or a better time to opt for a plant based diet.
    Want to create a better world? Eat like you mean it – Go Vegan
    http://www.nonviolenceunited.org/veganvideo.html

  • Wednesday, August 22, 2012
    USDA, McDonald’s suspend slaughterhouse buys from Central Valley Meat Co. over deadstock downer cows
    “We do know that workers were trying to make non-ambulatory cows not eligible for slaughter go to slaughter,” said Erica Meier, executive director of the animal welfare organization. “We believe red flags are raised for sure with our video, but it’s up to the USDA to decide.”
    The USDA bought 21 million pounds of beef from Central Valley Meat Co. in 2011 for the national school lunch and other federal food programs.
    Records show the government made five large-scale purchases of ground and chunk beef, spending more than $50 million of the total $135 allocated by the government for such acquisitions that year.
    USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said he did not know to which government food programs the beef was allocated. The meat generally goes to the national school lunch program and food distribution on Indian reservations, and is available for discount purchases by community food banks.
    http://downercattle.blogspot.com/2012/08/usda-mcdonalds-suspend-slaughterhouse.html

  • Jed

    Minkpuppy — thanks for elucidation. However, I don’t think I’m alone in not understanding how USDA inspection “really” works and I can’t say it makes me feel any better…
    While I’m very thankful we the public have some good inspectors on the job it does seem that they are only empowered to see what the meat company wants them to see during business hours.
    Meanwhile ultimately holding an intrinsically irresponsible Congress responsible for the built-in defects and omissions of the government meat inspection/certification program is a great way for Industrialized Meat to get around any real oversight.
    And with the standard litany against establishing “anti-business” regulations etched into the walls in the Halls of Congress we’re guaranteed that there will be continuing Congressional inaction — and the Big Meat corporations will continue on their merry way to the bank without fear of fines or liability.
    But the result is that 21 MILLION pounds of suspect product went to feed our kid’s school lunch programs in 2011 alone. Bottom line is this is the very definition of the institutionalized corruption of our food system.

  • Minkpuppy

    Jed: No, you don’t know how things “really” work inside FSIS unless you’ve been an inspector. So let’s not go there. Things are never what they appear to be, including this video.
    There’s always 15 more sides to the story that the public and the on-line inspectors never see or hear.
    I’ve worked slaughter off-line and online and processing and have seen a lot of things that would make an outsider cringe. Does it mean an unsafe product is out in commerce? Not necessarily. That’s why we have investigations and this is an ongoing investigation. So let’s not go there about thinking you know what’s “really” going on. No one knows except the people actually involved.
    But then, it’s all very convenient to attack the inspectors isn’t it? Someone has to be to blame but let’s not blame the plant or the individual dumb a$$ employees that committed the abuses. It has to be the inspector’s/guhvmint’s fault, after all they’re supposed to have super powers and be everywhere at once and be all-knowing.
    There’s a lot of assumption that the inspectors weren’t doing checks. I call BS–the animals have to be examined before slaughter. The vet or offline inspector is required to go out
    there to inspect every lot of cattle that was run into the box. This doesn’t last a few seconds-they’re out there awhile.
    When they’re done, they have to go back into the plant and do their other inspection responsibilites that are just as important and if they don’t do them you’d all still be screaming that they didn’t do their jobs in the event of a recall or E. coli outbreak. It’s a thankless job and they get no gd appreciation from the gullible and outraged public.
    USDA reviewed 3 hours of video, not the 3 minutes that COK is putting out everywhere. Don’t you think that there would be SOMETHING on a 3 hour video showing downers being forced into the knock box if it really happened? I don’t know if this plant has cameras on the yards, but their video would have evidence as well. But no, the assumption is always that FSIS is kissing industry’s ass and letting them get away with something because a false narrative on a video says so.
    If they witnessed downers being forced into the box, why isn’t it the video? I saw a lot of video of normal post-shot reations–the cows kick and thrash because the brain is no longer telling the body what to do. Check the tongue–if it’s hanging out, the cow is unconscious. It looks horrible to anyone who looks at it but when you know what to look for, you realize what’s actually abuse and what isn’t. A lot on this video wasn’t abuse–just creative narration to make it seem so. The actual abuse was verified and is being dealt with.
    Agency’s reaction at this time is appropriate considering the evidence they have. Unless, plant employees start squealing (and they will once they are assured that their bosses aren’t around), there will be no recall.

  • Marcia

    Nanny-staters take careful note. This is how your beloved government oversight manages things — they don’t! Here they have everything under control and everything goes wrong. That is normal government results. And you idiots want more government controlling more of our lives? No thanks. Fire all the government toadies.