WASHINGTON - U.S. inspectors say they are trying to determine whether Central Valley Meat Co., a slaughterhouse in California that supplies beef to the nation's school lunch program, used lame "downer" cattle against federal rules.
The Agriculture Department said it's investigating whether cattle that were too sick to stand or walk were slaughtered, a practice that is banned because of the risks for mad cow disease. The facility in Hanford, Calif., was shut down Sunday after regulators received video of slaughter practices and confirmed "inhumane handling violations," the agency said late Monday. No meat has been recalled.
The animal-welfare group Compassion Over Killing said it shot the video footage. The group's methods are similar to how the Humane Society of the United States obtained undercover video that led to the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of meat from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., also a supplier to the U.S. school lunch program. That recall occurred partly because of concern that downed cattle had been slaughtered.
"USDA considers inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter facilities to be unacceptable and is conducting a thorough investigation into these allegations," Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email. The agency "suspended operations at the facility and is prepared to take further action as warranted."
Brian Coelho, president of Central Valley Meat, said he couldn't comment on the video because it hadn't been shared with the company.
"We are extremely disturbed to be informed by the USDA that inspection was suspended and our plant could not operate based upon a videotape that was provided to the department by a third party group that alleged inhumane treatment of animals on our property," Coelho said yesterday in a statement.
A person answering the telephone Tuesday at Central Valley Meat declined to give their name or provide any information about the company. Two telephone calls to Compassion Over Killing weren't returned. The Washington-based group said on its website that it has worked since 1995 to end animal abuse.
The Central Valley plant was shut down because the USDA immediately suspended the assignment of inspectors to the establishment and is withholding marks of inspection necessary for sale. All handling activities are done under continuous inspection by USDA personnel, according to the statement.
The USDA has directed its Office of the Inspector General to investigate and verify the allegations in the video. A team, including veterinarians who specialize in humane handling, have been sent to Central Valley Meat to evaluate the video and determine if egregious inhumane handling of livestock occurred.
There have been four cases in the U.S. of cattle with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, with the most recent discovery confirmed by the USDA on April 24 in a dairy cow. The first was discovered in December 2003, and U.S. beef exports tumbled 82 percent to 460.3 million pounds during the next 12 months as dozens of countries banned the product, government data show. Most trade has resumed.