In Chino, California, the space now occupied by American Beef Packers has a story to tell. In 2008, the company that occupied the space, Hallmark-Westland Meatpacking Company, was the second largest meat processing plant in the nation. Now, following the largest beef recall in this country’s history and a deluge of negative attention, Hallmark-Westland ceases to exist except for its infamous legacy. This case highlights many issues in the meat production industry, including the prevalence of product contamination and animal abuse. What makes the Hallmark-Westland case unique is the basis of this massive recall: an undercover video posted on YouTube by a member of the Humane Society highlighting various animal abuses occurring in the plant.
Hallmark-Westland Meat Company started as two separate organizations. Hallmark Meat Packing, founded in 1960, slaughtered dairy cows and sold fresh beef to meat processing companies. Founded by Steve Mendell in 1990, Westland Meat Company bought the fresh beef and processed it into popular products like ground beef. In 2003, Steve Mendell purchased Hallmark to form the combined Hallmark-Westland Meat Company (Seltzer, 7). This joint venture covered all aspects of the meat production and distribution industry and quickly made Hallmark-Westland one of the most powerful meat packaging plants in the country. At the plant, labor conditions were perfectly legal yet undesirable. It was staffed by mostly Latino migrant workers, but there were also supervisors, veterinarians, and 5 USDA inspectors. Theoretically, these senior employees were to be present at all times of slaughter, but that didn’t appear to be the case.
Following the merger of the two companies, Hallmark-Westland became one of the largest fresh beef suppliers to the National School Lunch Program. The USDA named Hallmark-Westland its Supplier of the Year for the lunch program in 2004-2005. By 2007, Hallmark-Westland was supplying almost 20% of the ground beef for the School Lunch Program, which computes to approximately 27 million pounds of beef and $39 million in revenue for Hallmark-Westland annually (Seltzer, 7). While the National School Lunch Program was the largest source of individual revenue and stature for Hallmark-Westland, they also sold their ground beef to major food retailers like Jack in the Box and In-N-Out Burger, which contributed to the company’s $100 million annual sales (Seltzer, 7). These figures demonstrate that Hallmark-Westland was a profitable meat processing company that had garnered the respect of government organizations. Prior to their fall from grace, there had been little negative press surrounding Hallmark-Westland. Nobody knew what was going on behind closed doors.
Then, in 2007, everything at Hallmark-Westland began to unravel. As part of their random undercover auditing process, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) discovered that there were various crimes against animals being committed in the Hallmark-Westland plant. Their undercover investigator applied for a job there and was hired to drive cattle to holding pens and the killing floor. He worked long, grueling hours and was surrounded by various practices that did not meet ethical and legal standards. He noticed that the USDA inspectors and veterinarians were only present at two distinct times and did not analyze each individual animal. Therefore, it was much easier to slip a sick cow through to slaughter. The investigator also “routinely witnessed blatant and commonplace cruelties inflicted on animals who ignored regulations meant to prevent to torment and abuse of downed animals” (Pacelle, 3). This excerpt from Wayne Pacelle’s testimony to Congress just begins to describe the cruelties that were inflicted upon the cattle at the Hallmark-Westland plant. Nonambulatory cattle, also known as “downer cows”, were “rammed with the blades of a forklift, japed in the eyes, shocked in sensitive areas like the rectum, pulled with heavy machinery, and tortured with a high pressure water hose to stimulate drowning” (Pacelle, 1). These cruel and violent acts were perpetrated on the cows in order to make them stand and walk to slaughter.
It is important to define what a downer cow is, as that is the reason the animals were tortured so severely. “Downer cows” is a colloquial term for nonambulatory cattle, a phrase used to describe cows that are so physically drained and ill that they can no longer stand. According to USDA regulations, downer cows cannot be slaughtered and processed because of their dispensation to serious food borne illnesses like E.coli, salmonella, and, most severely, mad cow disease. Research has shown that, since downer cows spend more time lying down, they have an increased likelihood of being contaminated with questionable fecal matter (Pacelle, 10). While E.coli and salmonella are curable diseases, people panicked about potential mad cow contamination. Mad cow disease, formally known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), is a severe disease that comes from cattle. A study sanctioned and frequently cited by the FDA states that there is a 49-58 percent higher chance of finding mad cow in downed cattle. As a result of this data and in an attempt to protect the food that we eat, the government mandates that “any cattle arriving at the slaughterhouse in a nonambulatory fashion must be euthanized and their meat must not enter the food supply” (Nocera, 2). This regulation was clearly violated by Hallmark-Westland and contributed to many of the consequences they faced.
While the Humane Society investigator was infiltrating Hallmark-Westland, he recorded video footage of the aforementioned abuses against downer cows. Following the investigation and after reporting the crimes at the plant to necessary government agencies, the HSUS leaked the video to major news sources like The Washington Post and then proceeded to post the video online on the HSUS website and YouTube. The release of this video horrified the general public and sent off a wave of protest and outcry that ruined Hallmark-Westland forever. The images were graphic and horrifying. People began to question the beef industry and wondered how the government regulators could have let something like this happen.
Due to the publicity of the actions at Hallmark-Westland, the fallout was massive. First of all, Hallmark-Westland went bankrupt due to the massive fines and loss of product. They lost their major business partners and faced upwards of $60 billion in fines from various government organizations. Prior to bankruptcy filings, Hallmark-Westland recalled the 143.4 million pounds of beef that had been produced in the plant since February 1, 2006 (Becker 2008, 1). Despite the fact that there had been no report of any beef contamination, Hallmark-Westland was forced to recall the beef because of the disease potential and the treatment of their animals. Nobody is entirely sure if any downed cattle were actually slaughtered, as the video never shows this, but the circumstantial evidence is present. It is important to note that the Hallmark-Westland recall was designated as a Class II recall, which means that there is a “remote possibility that consumption of the products could cause adverse health effects” (Becker 2008, 1). Class I recalls, where there is a direct relationship between contaminated product and disease, are far more common when there is a recall of such magnitude. This is just one of the specifics that makes the Hallmark-Westland recall unique.
Another major issue related to the recall was the fact that Hallmark-Westland was a supplier to 100,000 school lunch and child-care programs in 36 states across the country (Suppan, 1). In fact, over one-third of the recalled meat had been used in federal nutrition programs like the School Lunch Program, government subsidized child-care, federal nutrition programs for the elderly, and in federal correctional institutions (Martin, 1). The government purchased over 50 million pounds of the recalled beef. This contributed to the public outcry over the recall because people had a difficult time understanding how the government could have missed such a major problem and simultaneously serve the questionable beef to children and the elderly. The government is supposed to protect our children, not endanger them.
There was also legal fallout surrounding the recall. Rafael Sanchez Herrera and Daniel Ugarte Navarro, two employees at the Hallmark-Westland plant that were caught on video abusing the animals, were criminally charged and plead guilty to felony animal abuse crimes (Seltzer, 6). This marks the first time in this country’s history that slaughterhouse employees were criminally charged and convicted of animal abuse.
This recall also brought an important legal issue to the forefront of the Department of Agriculture’s radar screen: their own regulatory failures. There were five full time USDA inspectors on the Hallmark-Westland plant during all hours. How could the Humane Society have caught onto something in six weeks and capture it so clearly, when the five government regulators hadn’t noticed a thing? Because of this, Wayne Pacelle and other environmental lobbyists proposed legislative reform to meatpacking regulations. In his congressional testimony following the recall, Pacelle suggested that, in order to protect the citizens of this country, the government must clarify all laws surrounding nonambulatory cattle and close any loopholes that may protect this kind of corporate behavior, strengthen oversight and enforcement, establish more meaningful penalties for offenders, and ensure humane federal procurement (Pacelle, 7-8). These types of regulations are important to prevent a recall like the one at Hallmark-Westland from happening again. The government intervened in the food industry to protect the citizens from situations like the one at Hallmark-Westland. If they are going to regulate that industry, they must do it to the fullest extent of their power.
Following the slew of congressional hearings surrounding the matter, Congress has created legislature to protect the citizens of the United States from slaughterhouses like Hallmark-Westland. First, Congress put a moratorium on the slaughter of any type of nonambulatory cattle for food. The amendment states that the cattle must be humanely euthanized, but none of their meat can enter the food supply. Also, the USDA now requires inspectors to report any nonambulatory cattle in the slaughterhouse so they can closely maintain the food supply that exits the slaughterhouse (Becker 2009, 6). While regulation still isn’t perfect, the government has dedicated itself to preventing such atrocities against animals from occurring under their watch again.
This case is not just about the meat recall, it is about the ethical treatment of animals and respecting what we, as humans, will eventually consume. The Hallmark-Westland case raises a lot of ethical questions, many of which are unsettling. Firstly, the ethical treatment of animals has been a major issue for years. Despite the presence of major lobbying groups like the Human Society and PETA, animals are continually abused and slaughtered unfairly. The YouTube video demonstrated how disrespectful employees are towards animals in order to produce the largest amount of product. While I understand that most American corporations are profit driven and want to maintain their financial standing, is slaughtering nonambulatory cattle really that economically beneficial to the company? Putting so many people’s health and wellbeing in jeopardy must have crossed the managers’ minds. This type of unethical behavior has become a cultural norm in the corporate American business world, but it shouldn’t even be an option in the food industry. Food is one of the most important parts of government regulation because the population cannot survive without that type of subsistence. If the government isn’t going to keep our food safe, they are putting the population in danger. They are ethically responsible for ensuring that situations like the one at Hallmark-Westland don’t occur.
While many people dispute the severity of the recall due to the lack of actual beef contamination, I believe that the product was recalled to make a point. Following the public and legal fallout, the government needed to take a stand against animal torture for meat production. If the industry was properly regulated and the USDA appointed inspectors were doing their job, the largest beef recall in history never would have happened. Regulating such a massive industry is difficult, but given the funds and resources available to the USDA and FSIS, it needs to happen. Hallmark-Westland once thrived as one of the largest and most successful meatpacking and distributing plants in the country. Now, like the cattle it so horribly abused, it has vanished from the meat industry. Major ethical issues like this can easily be prevented, it is just a matter of prioritizing ethics over revenue. Let’s hope this upward trend continues and ethics prevail.
A letter from Wayne Pacelle, Director of the Humane Society of the United States, to the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service
Docket No. 04-021ANPR, “Federal Measures to Mitigate BSE Risks: Considerations for Further Action”
On behalf of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the more than 8 million supporters of our organization nationwide, we would like to take this opportunity to submit comments regarding the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking “Federal Measures to Mitigate BSE Risks: Considerations for Further Action.” One of the most prudent measures taken by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to mitigate bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) risks was the banning of all non- ambulatory disabled cattle (downers) from the human food supply. We strongly support this policy as it helps to protect animal welfare and the safety of our food supply. We therefore urge the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) not to provide exemptions from the non-ambulatory disabled rule even for countries that are “BSE free” or have some other low-risk status. Processors abroad should be held to the same standards as required for American processors on this important matter.
Downed animals suffer terribly. Firstly, they suffer as a result of the illness and or injury that incapacitates them. A study on disabled cattle found their cortisol levels (a physiological indicator of stress) were nearly triple that of normal healthy cattle. The researchers concluded that the cows were suffering from severe stress.1 Furthermore, because they need special processing, downed animals may be left in this condition for hours or days without food, water, or veterinary care as they await slaughter.
Transporting downers in inhumane ways compounds this suffering. Non-ambulatory animals are difficult, if not impossible, to transport humanely. Investigations by The HSUS and other animal protection organizations have revealed that animals too sick or injured to stand or walk are routinely kicked, dragged with chains, shocked with electric prods, and pushed by bulldozers in efforts to move them at auction and slaughter facilities. A national study by industry expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., found that at some plants the most common handling problem associated with downers was dragging them while they were conscious.2 Some of these animals could be non-ambulatory due to broken legs. Anyone who has broken a bone knows the need for handling with the utmost care to minimize pain. To be dragged by chains, and perhaps even pulled by the very limb that is broken, is abhorrently cruel. Non-ambulatory cattle in other countries would suffer similarly and this practice should be discouraged by not allowing them into thefood supply. As Dr. Grandin has noted, “Ninety percent of all downers are preventable.”3 It is precisely the cases that involve broken bones and other injuries that are the most preventable with improved animal husbandry and handling practices. Prohibiting use of these animals for human food – regardless of their country of origin – will encourage greater care to keep them from becoming downers in the first place.
Allowing downers to be processed for human food threatens the safety of the food supply. Non-ambulatory disabled cattle are understood to be at heightened risk for BSE. A Swiss study (one of several cited by USDA) found that downer cattle are 49 to 58 times more likely to have BSE than cattle identified through passive surveillance (i.e., those reported to veterinary authorities as BSE-suspect based on clinical observation).4,5 Given the terrible and devastating nature of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans, thought to be caused by eating meat contaminated with the abnormal prions that cause BSE, keeping downer cattle from any country out of the U.S. food supply makes eminent sense.
While we understand that certain countries have been determined to be “BSE free” or at low risk for BSE, our concern is that infectious materials could still enter the United States from BSE-positive countries before they are officially recognized.6 The global nature of the trade in animals and animal products has made certain diseases like BSE a worldwide problem. Initially identified in the United Kingdom, BSE has since been found across the European continent, in Asia, Canada, and the U.S., demonstrating its ability to cross borders. Until the end of 2003 the United States had for a number of years been following internationally recognized standards for BSE prevention and been considered BSE free. Now a single case of a BSE positive cow found in Washington State has changed this. It has also raised the very real possibility that many more BSE positive animals could be found in this country. International experts have concluded that for each clinically affected animal identified, many animals are infected or exposed.7 Regardless of “BSE free” claims in particular countries, the FSIS needs to ensure that any country exporting meat to the U.S. has sufficient BSE mitigation measures in place. These should certainly include, at a minimum, ensuring that they are not processing downers. This would also provide a uniformity and consistency to slaughterhouse inspection procedures that is necessary for proper oversight.
Animals unable to stand or walk are not only at a higher risk of suffering from BSE but also have been shown to have a higher prevalence of Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens that can transmit disease to consumers. In particular E. coli O157: H7 is a significant public health concern because it has been implicated in more than 70,000 human infections and around 61 human deaths each year in the U.S.8,9 Cattle are the primary reservoir for E. coli O157:H710 and a study on the subject found downer cattle were more than 3 times more likely to have this deadly pathogen than healthy cattle.11 Downer cows can also shed more salmonella.12
Since meat from non-ambulatory disabled animals has a higher chance of transmitting disease it should not be imported. Its importation reduces food security and could contribute to the already growing problem of the globalization of human and animal diseases.
When the USDA announced its interim ruling prohibiting the processing of non- ambulatory disabled cattle for the human food supply, there was an outpouring of public support. Major retailers, consumer groups and other nonprofits, and some agricultural organizations and individual ranchers expressed strong support for the ban as well. In fact, of approximately 22,000 comments submitted to the USDA, more than 99 percent strongly support the ban. Details on this and more are included in the linked HSUS report “Public Comments on USDA’s Downed Animal Ban: Major Retailers and the Vast Majority of Americans Support No-Downer Policy; Some Industry Groups Reverse Their Support for the Ban”. The massive support for the ban was not only based on food safety concerns but also humane concerns, and is in line with a 2003 Zogby poll that showed a majority of Americans oppose the use of downed animals for human food. According to that poll, more than three-fourths of the U.S. population feels it is unacceptable to use downed animals for human consumption (77%). An even larger majority of the U.S. population is concerned that sending downed animals to slaughterhouses could put human consumers at risk for mad cow disease (81%).13 In light of this strong and unwavering support it is highly improbable that the American public would favor the importation of products from downed animals.
In conclusion, we urge the FSIS to require the same standards for BSE risk management of processors in other countries as are required for processors in the United States. Animals that are unable to stand and walk are suffering and their meat and meat byproducts should be entirely kept out of the food supply within this country. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Wayne Pacelle President and CEO The Humane Society of the United States 2100 L. Street NW Washington, D.C. 20037
Graph shows discrepancy between Inspector Pay and FSIS Budget. This contributed to the lack of inspection at the Hallmark-Westland Plant.
Humane Society Video
After the Beef Recall: Exploring Greater Transparency in the Meat Industry, 1-18 (2008) (testimony of Wayne Pacelle). Print.
Becker, Geoffrey S. “CRS Report for Congress: USDA Meat Inspection and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.” Congressional Research Service (n.d.): n. pag. 26 Feb 2008. General Issues in Context. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Becker, Geoffrey S. “CRS Report for Congress: Nonambulatory Livestock and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.” Congressional Research Service (n.d.): n. pag. 24 Mar 2009. General Issues in Context. Web. 09 Nov. 2012.
Blanchard, Jessica, and Tom Paulson. “Schools Keep Beef Off Menus.” Seattle Post-Intelligence 2 Feb. 2008: n. pag. General Issues in Context. Web. 11 Nov. 2008.
Martin, Andrew. “Largest Recall of Ground Beef Is Ordered.” New York Times 18 Feb. 2008: n. pag. New York Times Online. 18 Feb. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/business/18recall.html>.
Martin, Andrew. “Some Suspect Meat Used in School Lunches, U.S. Says.” New York Times 22 Feb. 2008: n. pag. Print.
Nocera, Joe. “A Case of Abuse, Heightened.” New York Times 8 Mar. 2008: n. pag. New York Times. 8 Mar. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/08/business/08nocera.html?ref=westlandhallmarkmeatcompany>.
Perry, Nancy, Peter Brandt, and Bernard Rollin. “Agricultural Animals and Animal Law.” First Impressions: Michigan Law Review 106.5 (2008): n. pag. Apr. 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2008. <michiganlawreview.org>.
Suppan, Steve. “Cattle Abuse, Beef Recall Highlight Systemic Weaknesses.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (2008): n. pag. Google Scholar. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
United States. Department of Homeland Security. National Center for Food Protection and Defense. Westland/Hallmark: 2008 Beef Recall. By Jon Seltzer, Jeff Rush, and Jean Kinsey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010. GIC. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Wald, Matthew L. “Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows.” New York Times 13 Mar. 2008: n. pag. New York Times. 13 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/business/13meat.html?ref=westlandhallmarkmeatcompany>.