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February 19, 2008

Recall Recoil

It was President's Day yesterday. But from my perspective, it was also a day of false assurances.

Video of HSUS investigation into cattle abuse at California slaughter plant
See the undercover video that led to the recall.

Arguably the top story across the country for the last two days has been the nation's largest ever recall of beef, prompted by The HSUS’s long-term undercover investigation at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. in Chino, Calif. A hidden camera investigation at the plant exposed downed dairy cows being struck with paddles, extensively prodded with electric shocks to the eyes and other highly sensitive areas, rammed with forklifts, and abused in other deplorable ways in order to get these animals to stand. The poor cows were bellowing in response to these assaults, but their cries generated not a hint of mercy from their abusers. They wanted to squeeze every last dime out of these ailing dairy cows, and they were ruthless in subjecting these creatures to an astonishing array of tools of torment.

The HSUS has been telling the story to America, with me and several other spokespersons appearing on many of the major media outlets. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have been offering their own perspectives and also talking to the American people. There's no denying the cruelty, and spokespersons from the federal government and the Cattlemen's Association concur that the inhumane treatment of these “spent” dairy cows was unacceptable. Good for them, and let's hope that the USDA continues with a vigorous investigation and has more news for us. We at The HSUS are particularly pleased that the new Agriculture Secretary called in the USDA's Office of Inspector General—the agency's semi-independent law enforcement arm—to investigate, since it has been a powerful and positive force on a number of animal protection issues.

But what I can't agree with are the claims by the USDA and the Cattlemen's Association that this plant represents an isolated case and all else is well with the regulation of slaughter plants in America. In an interview with PBS yesterday, the USDA's Kenneth Petersen said the incident is "an aberration," while a Cattlemen's Association representative told the Associated Press that most cattle bound for slaughter are treated humanely and the documented abuse is "something we don't condone and don't tolerate."

Now, I presume that if the Cattlemen's Association knew about the abuses at the Chino plant, it would have spoken up about it. Right? But the leaders of the group didn't speak out, so we must assume they had no knowledge of what was occurring.

If they did not know what was happening at that plant, they probably also don't know what's happening at the 900 other cattle slaughter plants in the United States. Their statement that this is an isolated case is a statement of faith, not fact.

The USDA has been trotting out the same line of argument. But let's concede two related points: First, the abuses at the Chino plant would not have come to light without the undercover operation by The HSUS. And second, these abuses occurred, as U.S. Rep. George Miller told USA Today, "right under the USDA's nose." In fact, the USDA honored this company as its 2004-05 Supplier of the Year to the National School Lunch Program.

If the USDA could not see abuses occurring at a plant where it had its full force of inspectors, how can it assure us that these terrible abuses are not happening elsewhere?

What we do know is that in the limited number of slaughter plant investigations conducted by The HSUS, PETA, Farm Sanctuary, Humane Farming Association, Compassion Over Killing, Mercy for Animals, and other animal protection groups, we see time and again that there have been gross abuses. PETA found workers slamming chickens against the walls of a slaughter plant. Other groups found animals being dismembered alive.

In 2006, the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General found that downers were getting into the food supply. In one case in Iowa, a USDA inquiry found that inspectors were sleeping and playing computer games on the job, while cows were being abused. This past week, Tyson fired several plant employees who were implicated in a chicken abuse scandal. Are these all also isolated incidents?

So let's leave the false assurances aside. We'd be grateful just to have the federal government do its job, and for the Cattlemen's Association and other industry groups to hold its colleagues to a basic standard of decency and begin to police its ranks. Their spin may make a few people dizzy, but I find it hollow and entirely unconvincing.

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