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Sick Cows Hit Food Supply, Beef Chief Says

Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. President Steve Mendell, waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 12, 2008, before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on federal regulations for food and food safety. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The head of the slaughterhouse at the center of the largest beef recall in U.S. history acknowledged Wednesday that cattle were illegally slaughtered at his plant and that cows too sick to stand were forced into the food supply.

Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. President Steve Mendell made the admissions after a congressional panel forced him to watch undercover video of abuses of cattle at his plant. Mendell watched head-in-hand as cows were dragged by chains, jabbed by forklifts and shocked to get them into the box where they'd be slaughtered.

Afterward he briefly bowed his head, then backed away from claims he made in his written testimony that no ill cows from his California plant entered the food supply.

So-called downer cattle are mostly barred by federal regulations from entering the food supply because they have a higher risk of infection.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat, asked Mendell whether it was logical to conclude from the video that at least two downer cows entered the U.S. food supply.

"That would be logical, yes sir," Mendell said.

"Has your company ever illegally slaughtered, processed, or sold a downer cow?" Stupak asked.

"I didn't think we had sir," Mendell said.

It was Mendell's first public appearance since the undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States led to his plant's shutdown and last month's recall of 143 million pounds of beef. Mendell was appearing under subpoena before the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. He was a no-show at a committee hearing last month.

Mendell initially contended that the cows shown unable to walk in the Humane Society of the United States video were designated to be euthanized. He said they were not being sent to slaughter in violation of federal rules barring most "downer" cows from the food supply because they carry a higher risk of infection.

"While these cows should be treated humanely and they were not, these cows were not harvested and they did not enter the food supply," Mendell said in written testimony. "They were not slaughtered, ground or sold. They were euthanized and removed."

Mendell was appearing under subpoena before the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. He was a no-show at a committee hearing last month.

Mendell said that the cows shown in the video being shocked and pushed with a forklift wouldn't have been able to make it up the chute to where the slaughter process begins. Instead they appear to be among the 10 to 15 cows that were euthanized at the slaughterhouse each day because they were non-ambulatory, he said.

Mendell noted that no illnesses have been reported from the recalled beef and the Agriculture Department has found no evidence of problems with it. Some 50 million pounds of the beef went to federal nutrition programs, mostly school lunches.

"I am not aware that there has ever before been a meat recall of this magnitude where there is no evidence of contaminated food and no evidence of any illness," he said.

Mendell said he has received death threats. He contended that his company has a long record of good safety procedures and was in the process of taking extensive corrective actions in response to the video when the Agriculture Department shut him down and called for a recall of product produced over the past two years.

"Our company is ruined. We cannot continue," Mendell said. Some 220 employees have lost or are about to lose their jobs, he said.

Two workers shown on the Humane Society video were fired and are facing animal cruelty charges from San Bernardino County prosecutors in an ongoing criminal investigation. Lawmakers have criticized Agriculture Department inspection procedures and called for reform.