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Meat plant drew scrutiny years before video
The Press-Enterprise


February 25, 2008

CHINO, Calif. -- California animal-welfare officers alerted government officials to the inhumane treatment of cows at Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino more than a decade before a recent undercover investigation led to the plant's closure and the largest beef recall in U.S. history, records show.

The Inland Valley Humane Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Pomona investigated 13 cases between 1996 and 2004 -- 11 of them substantiated -- involving Hallmark's treatment of "downer" cows, which are those too sick or injured to stand up or walk on their own.

"It tells you they have a long, ongoing history of not tending to downer animals in a prompt and humane manner," said Brian Sampson, the society's supervisor of animal services. The Inland Valley group provides animal-control services for the city of Chino.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was notified three times about possible violations of regulations regarding treatment of downer cows, twice in writing and once verbally, in 1996 and 1997, according to the humane society's file on Hallmark.

"We forwarded a lot of stuff to the USDA of our findings, but what action they took I don't know," said Sampson, who was a field officer at the time.

U.S. Agriculture Department officials had no immediate comment.

A woman who answered the phone at Hallmark on Thursday said the company has no comment.

Steve Mendell is president and a current owner. Donald Hallmark, of Ontario, said Thursday that he sold the plant five years ago and that earlier problems with the handling of downer cows were corrected.

Hallmark and its affiliated meat-packing operation, Westland Meat Co., have been under fire since the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video last month showing plant workers ramming downer cows with forklifts, shooting water up their noses and repeatedly zapping them with electric prods to get them upright to pass USDA inspection.

The two Humane Society organizations are not affiliated.

The meat company, which shut down operations early this month, is under federal investigation, and the San Bernardino County district attorney's office has filed animal-cruelty charges against a Hallmark supervisor and an employee.

On Sunday, Hallmark/Westland recalled 143 million pounds of beef processed at the Chino plant from February 2006 through this month.

Just over 50 million pounds of the recalled beef went to federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, said Eric Steiner, associate administrator of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. produced roughly 20 percent of the beef that went into the school lunch program, said Bill Sessions, associate deputy administrator for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

The agency has no plans to test any of the recalled meat, said Ken Petersen, assistant administrator for the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Petersen said the meat already is being removed from the food supply, so there is no reason to test it.

"Testing it isn't going to tell me anything," he said.

Petersen and other officials said the chance that people became ill from eating the meat is "very remote."

'There's been no reported illness, and we certainly don't envision any illness," Petersen said.

Cows are inspected before slaughter. The Humane Society of the United States investigation revealed that some cows were not re-inspected after they went down. That revelation -- not a concern that the beef was dangerous -- prompted the recall, Petersen said.

Non-ambulatory animals are not to be used in the human food supply to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called "mad cow" disease, a neurological disorder that can be fatal to humans.

A California law enacted in January 1994 prohibits non-USDA-inspected facilities from receiving downer animals. It requires that downers be immediately euthanized and not dragged or pushed with equipment. The USDA banned non-ambulatory cattle from the human food chain in 2003.

Petersen, in a telephone briefing Thursday, said both that violations were a "very rare occurrence" at the plant and that they happened "with some frequency going over a course of two years."

He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation. He also declined to say exactly how the on-site inspectors missed the violations.

Inland Valley Humane Society documents reveal a history of problems. Sampson said the agency's then-supervisor did not seek charges because it was assumed the USDA would address the problems. At most, there may have been failure to quickly euthanize, which is a misdemeanor, he said.


Reach Janet Zimmerman at jzimmerman(at) and Ben Goad at bgoad(at)
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