WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two of the nation's largest beef processors were slapped with humane handling violations during a government review of meat providers to the National School Lunch Program, records show.
One of those companies' violations was rescinded after the company appealed, and the other company's appeal is pending.
Audits by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service resulted in "noncompliance" determinations for a National Beef Packing Co. plant in Dodge City, Kan., and a Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Fresno, Calif., according to information obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Overall, the audits of 18 slaughterhouses found that some cattle were not being stunned properly on the first try, others were subject to overcrowding, and others had to be electrically prodded to get them to move.
FSIS conducted the audits after humane handling violations at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., led to the largest beef recall in the nation's history. That plant, which was a major supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, was shut down after the violations were captured on video by an undercover investigator of the Humane Society of the United States. The video showed workers shoving and kicking sick, crippled cattle, forcing them to stand using electric prods, forklifts and water hoses.
On Monday, after AP raised questions about Cargill's violations, FSIS officials notified the company that it was granting its appeal of the noncompliance determination and would instead issue a "letter of concern" to the plant.
"The merits of their appeal were acceptable," FSIS spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said, while declining to provide any specifics. Cargill spokesman Mark Klein also declined to discuss why the noncompliance record was rescinded.
The Agriculture Department told Sen. Herb Kohl in a letter three weeks ago that the audits found violations in four of the 18 slaughterhouses reviewed, including one serious enough to lead to a temporary suspension, but declined to identify the plants. Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, had requested the audits following the Westland/Hallmark violations.
In addition to Cargill and National Beef, the FOIA shows that the FSIS temporarily shut down Martin's Abattoir and Wholesale Meats in Godwin, N.C., for insufficiently stunning animals, failing to make them insensible to pain on the first attempt; and issued a noncompliance order to Dakota Premium Foods in South St. Paul, Minn., for excessive bunching up of cattle going into the stunning area. Martin's Abattoir declined to comment, and Dakota Premium did not return telephone messages.
FSIS cited National Beef for overcrowded holding pens. The company's president, Tim Klein, said Wednesday that the noncompliance record is under appeal. In a statement, he said National Beef had 53 cattle in a pen, when best practices guidelines called for a maximum of 49.
"Still, the cattle were able to move freely, had access to water and were not vocalizing (mooing)," Klein said.
"In the situation at our Dodge City plant, we may have had three or four too many steers in a pen," he added. "But by anyone's judgment, the cattle in our care were handled humanely and their treatment reflected a commitment to industry practices."
Cargill appealed its noncompliance determination, which cited a violation of a regulation that says "the driving of livestock from the holding pens to the stunning area should be done with a minimum of excitement and discomfort to the animals."
FSIS officials said that in reviewing 36 animals, virtually every one balked at entering the restrainer, and to keep them moving, an electric prod had to be used on 10 to coax them along. Three still refused, even after prodding, and had to be stunned and rendered unconscious "so that they could be pulled through the restrainer to be shackled, hung and bled," the noncompliance record states.
The record says that "a design flaw is creating a situation where the animals may have to be prodded excessively."
Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said the prods did not have batteries in them and so there was no electric current. And he said the audit itself led to problems with getting animals to move forward.
"We believe the reason for the animals balking, or not moving forward," he said, "was that there were too many people present during the audit, distracting the animals. He said that there were two or three additional government people and three or four additional Cargill employees on hand.
But the FSIS rejected that explanation.
"That's just not the case," said Eamich, the FSIS spokeswoman. "Our auditors are trained, they know how to conduct audits, to allow business to go on as usual, just as if some of our inspectors were there. It's really no different."
Eamich said the letter of concern says the company needs to fix the design flaws that led to the balking.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's factory farming campaign, called Cargill's explanation of balking "far-fetched." He also questioned why the company would be using electric prods with no batteries in them.
"The point of using an electric prod instead of a stick is to shock the animals to force them to move under the threat of pain," he said.
But Cargill's Klein said prods with no electricity can move the animals along.
"We use electric prods less and less," he said. "They still are in use, but greatly restricted. Electric prods are frowned upon."
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USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov
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