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September 25, 2009

Justice Dept.: Years of Downed Cow Horrors at Hallmark

In the aftermath of the Westland/Hallmark downer cow abuse scandal, many in the livestock industry reflexively declared that the horrors documented by an HSUS investigator during his six-week stint at the Hallmark meat processing plant were “an isolated incident,” and simply a rare case where some animals “were harvested out of compliance” with federal law. 

Westland/Hallmark President Steve Mendell even testified under oath before Congress that the footage showing employees ramming cows with forklifts, jabbing them in the eyes, and using painful electric shocks to force them to walk to slaughter was all “against company policy.”

Downed cow pushed with forklift at Hallmark meatpacking plant in Chino, Calif.
The HSUS

As the Associated Press reported yesterday, these mendacious claims were put to rest once and for all last month when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a new complaint in The HSUS’s ongoing government fraud case against Hallmark and its owners. The lawsuit alleges that Westland/Hallmark defrauded the federal government by violating the terms of its school lunch program contracts requiring the humane handling of animals. After reviewing The HSUS's complaint, the Department of Justice elected to intervene in the case and join The HSUS in seeking to recover approximately $150 million in taxpayer money spent on potentially tainted ground beef during the period covered by the recall.

The new 65-page complaint filed by the Department of Justice not only confirms everything our investigation found, but also alleges that the systematic abuse of cows, and the resulting use of downer cow meat in the school lunch program, may have gone on for as long as four years. The complaint also alleges that Mr. Mendell and other executives knew full well the plant was putting downer cows into the food supply, and willfully tried to conceal this from federal officials.

We are deeply concerned by the Department of Justice’s new allegations concerning Hallmark, but not surprised. Facts are stubborn things, and have a way of breaking through the fog over time. We have made clear since day one of this scandal that the institutional abuses at Hallmark are a symptom of a much larger problem, and not merely a reflection of rogue actions by low-level employees. One can only wonder what else might be going on in an industry where these kinds of shocking and horrific acts of animal cruelty can go on for not months, but years, right under the nose of federal inspectors and third party auditing firms paid to prevent such abuses.

I commend the U.S. Department of Justice for joining The HSUS in seeking to ensure that unscrupulous federal meat suppliers do not profit from the gross and systematic mistreatment of animals in violation of federal law. But the larger question is, how widespread are these abuses throughout the transport and slaughter industries? Unfortunately, wherever investigators from animal protection groups have taken an unauthorized, behind-the-scenes look at the practices of the animal agribusiness sector, it’s been one abuse after another. In California, downed cows tormented to get them to stand. In Ohio, pigs killed by execution-style hanging. Turkeys kicked, punched and stomped on in West Virginia. Pigs beaten with blunt instruments in North Carolina. Egg-laying hens thrown into trash cans to die a slow, painful death in Maine. Still more egg-laying hens impaled on cage wires in California.

Here, you have an industry that resists the imposition of any new regulations or standards related to the humane treatment of animals, yet it has a long and pitiful record of mistreating animals. Everyone seems to get the problem, except the industry leaders themselves.

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