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Video of workers abusing cows raises food safety questions

  • Story Highlights
  • Hidden-camera video shows workers shocking, kicking, jabbing weakened cows
  • Such cows are more easily contaminated, may carry diseases harmful to consumers
  • Society president calls on Congress to act to protect food supply
  • Packer sells beef to company that supplies National School Lunch Program
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From Kathy Benz
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Humane Society of the United States released a video Wednesday it says shows mistreatment of "downed" cows at a California slaughterhouse -- and one lawmaker said it raises questions about the safety of the nation's food supply.

The Humane Society says the video was shot last year by an undercover investigator.

The video shows Hallmark Meat Packing Co. workers administering repeated electric shocks to downed cows -- animals that are too sick, weak or otherwise unable to stand on their own. Workers are seen kicking cows, jabbing them near their eyes, ramming them with a forklift and shooting high-intensity water up their noses in an effort to force them to their feet for slaughter.

The society says the video was shot last year by an undercover investigator who wore a hidden camera under his clothes when he worked at the facility.

Hallmark Meat Packing Co., based in Chino, California, sells beef to its sister company, Westland Meat, which distributes it to various federal programs, including the National School Lunch Program. Video Watch the video of cows being abused »

Downed cows are more easily contaminated and may carry diseases harmful to consumers. U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations prohibit allowing disabled or contaminated animals into the food supply. Officials said they would investigate.

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"This must serve as a five-alarm call to action for Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society president. "Our government simply must act quickly both to guarantee the most basic level of humane treatment for farm animals and to protect America's most vulnerable people -- our children, needy families and the elderly -- from the potentially dangerous food."

The Associated Press reported that the Agriculture Department is investigating the possible violation of state and federal laws at the slaughterhouse.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said "appropriate actions will be taken" if violations are found in the facility, and added there is no evidence the nation's beef supply is at risk.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, sent letters Wednesday to the agriculture secretary and the head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) asking for an immediate investigation into the safety of ground beef being used in the National School Lunch Program.

"The treatment of animals in this video is appalling, but more than that, it raises significant concerns about the safety of the food being served to our nation's children," Durbin said. "The apparent slaughter of sick and weak animals not only appears to violate USDA regulations, but could be a danger to our nation's food supply."

He called on the USDA to investigate and urged FSIS to act immediately "to review the safety of the food being used in the school lunch program."

Westland, the second-largest supplier of beef for the National School Lunch Program, was named "supplier of the year" in 2004-2005 by the Agriculture Department. It has delivered beef to schools in 36 states.

In a written statement, Steve Mendell, president of both Westland and Hallmark, said the company has fired the two employees in the video and suspended their supervisor.

"We are shocked, saddened and sickened by what we have seen today. Operations have been immediately suspended until we can meet with all our employees and be assured these sorts of activities never again happen at our facility," he said.

The statement did not address whether meat from the sick cows in the video ever entered the food supply.

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The USDA, in its news release, said it was "unfortunate" the Humane Society "did not present this information to use when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007."

The Humane Society, in its statement, said it had turned the information over to "California law enforcement officials" at that time, and "local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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