A government inspection of slaughterhouses found significant problems with the treatment of cattle and two of the nation's largest beef processors - both of which provide meat for the National School Lunch Program - were slapped with humane handling violations.
One of those companies' violations was rescinded after the company appealed, The Associated Press has learned.
Audits by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service resulted in "noncompliance" records to 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 AP under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The audits of 18 slaughterhouses found that some cattle were not being stunned properly on the first try, others were subject to overcrowding conditions, 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. That plant, which was a major supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, was shut down after the . 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 record and would instead issue a "letter of concern" to the plant.
"The merits of their appeal were acceptable," said FSIS spokeswoman Amanda Eamich, but she declined 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 Cargill spokesman Mark Klein also declined to discuss why the noncompliance record was rescinded.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 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. National Beef did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages this week.
Cargill appealed its noncompliance record, which cited a violation of a regulation which 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 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, was that there were too many people present during the audit, distracting the animals," he said. Klein said 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, 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 that 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 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."