DENVER Despite a secretly taped video showing workers at a Southern California slaughterhouse abusing sick or crippled animals, nearly all cattle bound for American dinner tables are treated humanely, a cattle industry spokesman said Monday.
The undercover video taken at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of Chino, Calif., by the Humane Society of the United States shows workers shocking, kicking and shoving debilitated cattle with forklifts, and has led to the largest recall of beef in U.S. history.
Bo Reagan, vice president of research for the Colorado-based National Cattleman's Beef Association, said the videotaped incident was not indicative of how most slaughterhouses operate.
"The welfare of our animals that's the heart and soul of our operations," Reagan said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines mandate that an inspector must review sick or injured animals, called "downer" cattle, before they can be slaughtered, and that the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act sets strict rules for the humane treatment of animals.
"What happened in this case was that there were some animals that were harvested out of compliance," he said.
The video prompted the recall of 143 million pounds of the company's beef. Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease since they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, said his organization chose to investigate the Westland/Hallmark plant at random, and said he was skeptical of the cattle industry's practices.
"I think this is the typical rhetorical and typical false assurances that we hear from the industry after glaring problems have been exposed," he said.
He said it's impossible to say whether the treatment depicted on the video is isolated, but stopped short of calling it widespread.
"I think we can't say for sure one way or another, but it's certainly a bad sign for the industry and the USDA to have been exposed for their failures in this single, random investigation," he said.
Agriculture officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.
"We don't know how much product is out there right now. We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action," said Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety.
About 150 school districts nationwide have stopped using the beef, officials said. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, which allocates funding for the USDA, sent a letter to the agency's undersecretary for food safety on Monday demanding answers to questions about the Westland/Hallmark case before a March 5 budgetary review hearing.
DeLauro called the videotaped mistreatment of cattle and said she was concerned it "demonstrates just how far our food safety system has collapsed."
Westland/Hallmark is a major supplier of beef for the National School Lunch Program, and DeLauro called for an independent investigation into the government's ability to ensure the safety of meat served at U.S. schools.
The congresswoman also asked what the USDA is doing to address staff shortages among slaughterhouse inspectors an issue also raised by other food safety experts and watchdog groups Monday.
Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch says the USDA has left up to 21 percent of inspector positions vacant in some areas.
USDA spokesman Keith Williams said there is no shortage of inspectors. He said the agency has evidence that Westland/Hallmark did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became unable to walk after passing inspection, violating health regulations.
A phone message left Monday for Westland/Hallmark president Steve Mendell was not immediately returned.
Two former Westland/Hallmark employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.No charges have been filed against the company, but an investigation by federal authorities continues.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus and Jacob Adelman and AP videographer John Mone in Los Angeles contributed to this report.