Undercover video taken at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of Chino, Calif., shows workers shocking, kicking and shoving debilitated cattle with forklifts, prompting the government to pull 143 million pounds of the company's beef.
Bo Reagan, vice president of research for the Colorado-based National Cattleman's Beef Association, said the videotaped incident was not indicative of how most slaughterhouses operate.
"The welfare of our animals - that's the heart and soul of our operations," Reagan said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines mandate that an inspector must review sick or injured animals, called "downer" cattle, before they can be slaughtered, and that the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act sets strict rules for the humane treatment of animals.
"What happened in this case was that there were some animals that were harvested out of compliance," he said.
Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease since they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, which videotaped the alleged abuse, said his organization chose to investigate the Westland/Hallmark plant at random, and said he was skeptical of the cattle industry's practices.
"I think this is the typical rhetorical and typical false assurances that we hear from the industry after glaring problems have been exposed," he said.
Pacelle said it's impossible to say whether the treatment depicted on the video is isolated, but stopped short of calling it widespread.
"I think we can't say for sure one way or another, but it's certainly a bad sign for the industry and the USDA to have been exposed for their failures in this single, random investigation," he said.
Agriculture officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.
"We don't know how much product is out there right now. We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action," said Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, called the video inhumane and said she was concerned it "demonstrates just how far our food safety system has collapsed."
DeLauro, D-Conn., has also called for an independent investigation into the government's ability to secure the safety of meat in the nation's schools.
Recalled meat is piling up at six Michigan school districts. Grand Rapids Public Schools must throw out 10 tons of hamburger, while the Ann Arbor Public Schools has about 200 pounds of quarantined beef.
Some of the hamburger being recalled already was served to students in Portage Public Schools. "It was in our taco sauce and our spaghetti sauce," Portage district food service manager Lance Gerry told the Kalamazoo Gazette. "We've been serving those products for a while."
USDA spokesman Keith Williams said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.
Williams said the recall was done primarily to revoke the USDA's seal of inspection for the meat - not because of the risk of illness.
"Everybody's going, 'Oh, a recall, that means death, that means sickness.' That's a different kind of issue," Williams said. "This is a lower severity, where there would be a remote probability of sickness."
DeLauro also asked what the USDA is doing to address staff shortages among slaughterhouse inspectors - an issue also raised by other food safety experts and watchdog groups Monday.
Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch said the USDA has left up to 21 percent of inspector positions vacant in some areas. Williams, of the USDA, said there is no shortage of inspectors.
Two former Westland/Hallmark employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts - illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal - were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.
No charges have been filed against the company, but an investigation by federal authorities continues. A phone message left Monday for Westland/Hallmark president Steve Mendell was not returned.