Humane Society Criticized in Meat Quality Scandal
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Gary Rodkin, left, chief of ConAgra Foods, at Tuesday’s House hearing, with B. Keith Shoemaker, president of Butterball L.L.C.
By ANDREW MARTIN
Published: February 27, 2008
WASHINGTON — As the meat industry scrambles to recover from a public-relations disaster over an undercover video of abused cattle, the secretary of agriculture and at least one congressman have picked an unlikely target to share in the blame: the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society shot the video of what appear to be sick or lame cattle being forced to their feet with forklifts, hoses and electric prods at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, Calif., in October and November.
Released publicly in late January, the video touched off criticism of the Department of Agriculture’s inspection of the meat supply and led to the biggest beef recall in history, 143 million pounds.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, assailed the Humane Society for waiting to inform the federal government.
“Why wait until February to release the video?” Mr. Burgess demanded of a Humane Society representative. “Why wait until now to bring this to our attention?”
His criticism echoed a point made last week by Ed Schafer, the secretary of agriculture, who said he was “extremely disappointed” in the Humane Society. He complained that “for four months, theoretically, animals were not being properly treated, and the Humane Society stood by and allowed it to happen.”
Humane Society representatives said Tuesday that the criticism was misplaced. They said the primary concern of their organization is animal welfare, not food safety, and as soon as they had the tape they took it to local prosecutors in California.
The Humane Society said it was asked to withhold the tape while the prosecutors conducted an investigation. The society released the tape after growing frustrated with the pace of that investigation. Shortly afterward, prosecutors charged two slaughterhouse workers with violations.
The recall of meat from Westland/Hallmark has focused attention on potential food safety hazards, especially since some of the meat was served to schoolchildren. Slaughtering cattle that cannot walk, known as “downer” cattle, poses a slight risk of introducing disease into the food supply.
The Humane Society said its principal motivation in penetrating the slaughterhouse was to check whether Westland/Hallmark was treating animals in a humane manner.
“First and foremost, the U.S.D.A. should not be relying on a private animal welfare charity to do its job for them,” said Paul Shapiro, who oversees issues involving farm-animal abuse for the Humane Society. He said there was little incentive to go to the Department of Agriculture anyway because the agency often ignores abuse allegations.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said the Humane Society should be praised, not blamed, for uncovering the abuse and potential food safety problems at Westland/Hallmark.
“It is the height of irony that the U.S.D.A. is now trying to blame the whistle-blower for the agency’s own irresponsible behavior,” she said in an e-mail message.
Officials at Westland/Hallmark Meat declined to comment on Tuesday. Steve Mendell, the company’s president, refused to appear voluntarily at Tuesday’s Congressional hearing. The company has stopped operating, though whether the shutdown will be permanent remains to be seen.
Agriculture officials maintain that no one has become sick from the Westland/Hallmark meat, and that the risk of contracting mad cow disease from it is quite low.
The cattle in question had passed initial inspection by a Department of Agriculture veterinarian. But if cattle go down in the time between that inspection and slaughter, a federal veterinarian is supposed to be summoned to determine if they are fit. Whether that happened in every instance at Westland/Hallmark is at issue.
Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society, urged a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at Tuesday’s hearing to close the “loophole” that allows veterinarians to approved downed cattle for slaughter. He said that created a financial incentive for just the sort of abuse shown in the undercover videotape.
Several members of Congress on Tuesday bemoaned what they described as an underfinanced and antiquated food-safety system.
Robert E. Brackett, who served as director of the Food and Drug Administration’s food-safety unit until last year, criticized both the Bush administration and Congress, saying they failed to provide enough money to the agency to protect the food supply.
“Because F.D.A. food-related funding has not kept pace with inflation, more than 800 scientists, inspectors and other critical staff have been lost in the past four years,” said Mr. Brackett, now a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.