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USDA audit of humane handling finds violations in four slaughterhouses

WASHINGTON (AP)--A federal audit of 18 beef slaughterhouses following the nation's largest beef recall found humane handling violations in four of them, including one serious enough for the plant to be temporarily suspended.

The audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service concluded that a plant was insufficiently stunning animals, failing to make them insensible to pain on the first attempt. That plant has taken corrective actions and its suspension has been lifted, said Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer. None of the plants was identified.

The audit, which covered slaughterhouses that supply beef to the National School Lunch Program and other federal food assistance programs, was requested by Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee. Schafer provided the results to Kohl in a letter for a hearing on the beef recall April 8.

Earlier this year, the department recalled 143 million pounds of meat from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., in Chino, Calif., following an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States that showed slaughterhouse workers abusing "downer" cattle--those too sick or injured to stand.

The USDA's audit didn't uncover problems with downer cattle, but it did issue "noncompliance" records to plants for excessive use of electronic stunning prods; overcrowding of animals in the pens; and bunching up of cattle going into the stunning area. Those three were in addition to the plant that was suspended for insufficient stunning.

In addition, one plant received a "letter of concern" for using a high-powered hose to wash cattle before slaughter. While not a violation, FSIS informed the plant that care should be taken to avoid undue stress or excitement to the animals.

The problems uncovered by the audit have been corrected, Schafer told Kohl at April 8's hearing.

"We are confident that USDA can do a better job," he added. "We have helped train our inspectors to observe while being unobserved, so that they can properly watch over the system."

Kohl said later that while he was pleased most plants met basic humane handling standards, "I remain concerned at least one plant other than Westland/Hallmark had a problem serious enough to warrant a notice of suspension, and several plants were found not in compliance with humane handling practices. I am working with USDA to gather more information about these audits and to find ways to ensure that the problems being discovered do not continue."

Schafer told reporters after the hearing that based on the audit's findings, he does not believe the problems at Westland/Hallmark were systemic.

"It seems to be confined, on a downer cow issue, to the Chino facility," he said. "But our continuing investigation will give us the full answer to that."

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, argued that the findings show there is a systemic problem. He said that following his group's investigation, slaughterhouses would likely be on higher alert--especially these 18, since Schafer had announced in February that they would be audited.

"That is a pretty high rate of violation in light of the fact that USDA inspectors were known to be present, and that this occurred after the Hallmark investigation," he said. "This letter is not reassuring. This confirms there are major problems with the inspection program and inadequacies with the law."

Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, which represents packers and processors, said that with the exception of the suspended plant, the findings "suggest a high degree of compliance and now an even higher degree of federal oversight.

"In fact," she said, "given the additional scrutiny these plants experienced through the in-depth audits, the findings should be reassuring to consumers and should underscore that the California video released in January truly was an anomaly."

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Date: 4/15/08

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