One of the nastiest chapters in unsafe food is still unfinished business due to an ongoing federal lawsuit that is focused on fraud in the school lunch program.

The lawsuit was originally brought in February 2009 by the Humane Society of the United States against Hallmark and Westland, the meat packing companies that were using forklifts to force “downer” cows into slaughter. 

But last spring, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case on the side of the Humane Society, the organization that put one of its operatives on the Hallmark/Westland payroll at the Chino slaughterhouse long enough to make secret movies of the animal abuse going on inside the plant.

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When the Humane Society went public on Jan. 30, 2008 with those shocking pictures, the public quickly learned that not only was the Chino slaughterhouse using “downer” cows, but Hallmark/Westland was the second biggest beef supplier in the U.S. to the National School Lunch program.

Within days, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) brought about the largest single recall in U.S. history of 143.4 million pounds of beef from the Chino slaughterhouse.

Then USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Richard Raymond, suspended Hallmark/Westland from the National School Lunch Program, and USDA Secretary Ed Schafer called for an Inspector General’s investigation “into allegations of inhuman handling of non-ambulatory disabled cattle” at Chino.

A year later, the Humane Society went to federal court under the False Claims Act, which empowers private citizens who know about fraud against the U.S. government to present those claims as a qui tam suit on behalf of the U.S. to recover civil penalties and treble damages. It said up to $150 million should be paid back by the defendants.

Most of the time, the U.S. Department of Justice does not intervene. This time, it did.

In addition to Hallmark and Westland, the False Claims Act lawsuit also lists M&M Management LLC, Cattleman’s Choice Inc., Donald R. Hallmark, Steve Mendell, and Walter S, Weiss as executor of the estate of Aaron or Arnie Magidow, and JoAnn Magidow as defendants.

And while the Humane Society wants to teach the meat industry a lesson about the inhumane treatment of animals, the “teachable moment” of this courthouse drama might turn out to be “don’t hide the federal felons on your team” if you’re selling meat to the U.S. government.

The Chino slaughterhouse did not disclose the federal criminal convictions of partner Aaron Magidow, who was also known as Arnie Magidow.  He was convicted in 1974 of bribing a federal meat inspector, and in 1983 for participating in a fraudulent meat-buying scheme.  Magidow has since died, which is why is estate is named as a defendant.

“This action arises out of a series of contracts entered into between August 8, 2003, and January 24, 2008 under which the Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) brought fresh and frozen beef products from the National School Lunch Program and other federal food programs from an entity identifying itself as  “Westland/Hallmark Meat Company…” the complaint says.

It goes on to say that Westland/Hallmark “breached the material terms of its contracts” by “handling cattle inhumanely on a daily basis,” and “periodically processing meat from non-ambulatory disabled cattle on an average of once every six weeks…”

Animal experts says “downer” cows are more susceptible to infections and therefore poise a higher risk of spreading bacterial diseases like E. coli O157:H7 and Mad Cow.

While this civil case goes forward, only two employees of the Chino slaughterhouse were prosecuted in San Bernardino County, CA courts for the animal cruelty caught on the under-cover camera.  One was sentenced to nine months in jail, and the other six.

Attorneys for the defendants have until mid-October to respond to the government’s counterclaim.

(Photo Credit: Humane Society of the United States)