Humane Soc. uncovers slaughterhouse abuse

January 30, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The Humane Society of the United States released shocking undercover video Wednesday from a major California slaughterhouse. It's an operation that supplies ground beef to school lunch programs.

New disturbing video raises two issues -- animal abuse and meat from sick cows getting into the food supply, especially for our kids. These are "downer cows" -- cows that are too sick.

By state and federal law, one of the cows shown in the video should not be slaughter for food. She is obviously sick and can't stand on her own (what's called a downer cow). However, workers at Westland Meat Company in Chino take extreme measures to get her into the slaughterhouse.

"The only way that you even know that they're still alive is that they're blinking and barely breathing and those were still, at this plant, viable slaughter animals," says the undercover investigator.

We spoke exclusively with the undercover Humane Society investigator who got a job at the plant and shot the video last fall. Workers used a forklift to try and get a sick cow to her feet -- it didn't work. They repeatedly used an electric prod to shock another. And then they used a high pressure hose to force water into a cow's nose and throat, to try and get her to stand.

We spoke with the president of the Humane Society from Washington.

"These animals are tortured and tormented and this violates the state anti-cruelty statute and the law against downers being abused specifically," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

Twice a day at the plant, a USDA inspector approved each of the cows headed to slaughter. Before his visits, workers did all they could to get the sick cows to stand so the inspector could approve them. There's a danger with downer cows being slaughtered for food.

"Downer livestock, we know from all the data, are 50 times more likely to have mad cow disease or BSE,. They also -- because they're down and wobbling in manure -- they are a much greater risk of spreading ecoli or salmonella," says Pacelle.

Officials from the USDA refused our requests to be interviewed about the video, but Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer ordered an investigation into the matter Wednesday afternoon and released a statement saying, "any violations of food safety or humane handling laws will be immediately acted upon." (Read the full USDA statement here).

The president of Westland Meat Company put out a release saying, "we are shocked, saddened and sickened by what we have seen today." He's fired two employees and suspended operations "until we can meet with all our employees and be assured these sorts of activities never again happen at our facility." (Read the full Westland Meat Company release here)

The undercover investigator believes local prosecutors should pursue a criminal case.

"I think more than being fired, the district attorney needs to look at those people because what they were doing isn't just mistreatment. I believe it's beyond that, it's criminal. It's just tortuous treatment," says the undercover investigator.

Westland Meat Company takes old dairy cows that are no longer producing milk. They're already stressed, and are more likely to wind up sick at the slaughterhouse.

Also Wednesday, the USDA questioned why the Humane Society waited months to inform the authorities about problems at the plant. You can read more about that aspect of the story in the I-Team blog here.