The U.S. Department of Agriculture withdrew inspectors from Central Valley Meat in Hanford, California on Sunday after an undercover video alleged egregious violations of federal humane slaughter laws.
The USDA was given footage from Compassion Over Killing, an animal rights group, that showed dairy cows being “repeatedly shocked and shot before being slaughtered,” according to the Associated Press, which was given four minutes of the footage. The AP reported that some of the cows were unable to walk.
Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations for the North American Meat Association, told Food Safety News that Central Valley Meat did not slaughter “downer” cows — cows unable to stand or walk — for human consumption.
“The plant is shut down for humane handling violations, not for food safety. To my knowledge there aren’t even allegations that it processed downed animals,” said Russell, in an email. “Had they been, USDA would have insisted on a recall and no recall has been initiated or requested. This is a humane handling issue, but does not affect food safety.”
Non-ambulatory cattle are not legally allowed to be slaughtered for human consumption, in part because not being able stand or walk can be a clinical sign of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. In April, the USDA confirmed that a downer dairy cow sent to a rendering plant, not a slaughter facility, tested positive for BSE.
As recently as 2009, Central Valley Meat was one of the top three suppliers of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, but Food Safety News was not able to immediately confirm whether the company still supplies meat to the program.
“The USDA considers inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter facilities to be unacceptable and is conducting a thorough investigation into these allegations,” said a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman. “Upon confirming several humane handling violations, FSIS suspended operations at the facility and is prepared to take further action as warranted by the investigation.”
Within hours of receiving the footage on August 16, the USDA — which is charged with assuring the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products — requested that its Office of the Inspector General investigate the validity of the allegations.
A team of investigators, including public health veterinarians specializing in humane handling, were sent to California on August 17 and the team concluded there was “sufficient evidence of several incidents that were determined to be egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock,” according to an official familiar with the investigation.
On August 19, FSIS notified Central Valley Meats that the agency was withholding the marks of inspection and immediately suspending the assignment of inspectors at the establishment.
“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 Monday. “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.
“We are cooperating fully with USDA on its investigation,” said Coelho, who added that family members and managers “who have a long tenure with the company” supervise humane handling.
FSIS inspectors also provide continuous inspection at the facility. “That is why these allegations are both disturbing and surprising,” he said.
According to AP, the undercover video, which was reportedly shot over a two-week period in June, shows cows “being prepared for slaughter.”
“One worker appears to be suffocating a cow by standing on its muzzle after a gun that injects a bolt into the animal’s head had failed to render it unconscious,” according to the report. “In another clip, a cow is still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifts it by one leg for transport to an area where the animals’ throats are slit for blood draining.”
“The videos show workers pulling downed cows by their tails and kicking them in an apparent attempt to get them to stand and walk to slaughter,” the report continued. “Others shoot downed cows in the head over and over as the cows thrash on the ground. In one instance, the video shows workers trying to get cattle to back out of a chute while repeatedly spraying them with water and shocking them.”
Dragging cattle on the ground can also present a microbiological food safety risk by allowing E. coli and other dangerous pathogens to contaminate the hide before slaughter.
In 2008, an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States showed downer cows being prodded and moved with forklifts at Hallmark and Westland in Chino, California. The video sparked outrage among consumers and prompted the largest beef recall in history as well as two criminal convictions.
This story has been updated to reflect that there is no evidence downer cows were slaughtered for human consumption and to include comments from the North American Meat Association.© Food Safety News