The Des Moines Register (link no longer available)
By Philip Brasher, Register Washington Bureau
Washington, D.C. — The undercover videos were bad enough: packing-plant workers abusing sick or disabled cattle and dragging at least one of the cows to be slaughtered, a violation of federal food-safety standards.
But consumer advocates say what’s also disturbing is what happened within days of that video being shot at a California slaughterhouse. Independent inspectors from two auditing firms visited the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. plant and gave it glowing marks.
Companies from McDonald’s to Wal-Mart are increasingly relying on similar third-party inspections to assure the public that the meat, produce and other food they are eating was properly raised and processed.
But the misleading reports from the Westland/Hallmark plant are prompting questions about how meaningful these audits really are. The Humane Society of the United States, whose undercover investigator shot the video that led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history, said Westland/Hallmark coached workers on safe-handling practices a day before one auditor visited the plant.
Some packers — including Tyson, which has Iowa plants — may install cameras to monitor workers handling livestock.
Meanwhile, federal inspectors are temporarily spending more time watching how livestock are handled at packing plants, including three in Iowa, and less time checking the meat.
Plant scored high in two inspections
Independent inspectors from auditing firms based in Virgina and Illinois both missed the livestock abuse at the Westland/Hallmark’s Chino slaughterhouse that resulted in the plant’s entire production for the past two years – 143 million pounds – being recalled.
The vice president of HACCP Consulting Group, a Virginia-based auditing firm, inspected the California plant last Nov. 13-14 and reported that it had a well-designed humane-handling program “to ensure that live animals are treated in a manner conducive to the tenets of established humane-handling practices.”
A week later, a representative of an Illinois-based auditing firm, Silliker Inc., graded the plant’s humane-handling practices according to an audit system that’s in wide use through out the meatpacking industry.
The plant received 106 out of a possible 110 points, including perfect scores on the condition of the cattle and the way they were unloaded and treated in holding pens.
How could a plant treat cattle poorly – the company president says he was sickened by what he saw on the videos – and yet pass its outside inspections with no problem?
One possible explanation is that the company knew the auditors were coming and cleaned up its act.
On Nov. 12, the day before the HACCP Consulting Group representative reviewer visited the plant, the workers who handled cattle were called together and lectured in Spanish for an hour on the proper way to treat the livestock, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Among the workers was the undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States who had been shooting the now-famous video over the previous six weeks, Pacelle said.
John H. Miller, the HACCP Consulting Group inspector, said company officials were “quite proud” of their practices. From “what I saw when I was there, they had a right to be,” he said.
Miller, a former federal meat inspector, said HACCP’s audit had been scheduled in advance with the company.
The other auditing firm, Silliker, declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.
Doing unscheduled audits wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, said Temple Grandin, a consultant who designed the humane- handling auditing program that is now the industry standard. As soon as an auditor enters a plant gate, supervisors have plenty of time to warn workers what is coming, she said.
“Some plants are very clever to make sure they don’t do bad things when the auditors are around,” she said.
She said she believes it’s time for slaughter plants to start installing cameras in pen areas so that there is a video record of what’s happening.
Having the videos would not only ensure that workers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but also protect the company in case there’s a dispute with an on-site government inspector, she said. The companies could bring in an outside expert to view the video and referee the dispute, she said.
Some companies are looking into camera systems for livestock-handling areas in the wake of the Westland/Hallmark case. Tyson Foods Inc. has cameras in the processing areas of its plants in Iowa and elsewhere, but the company has not decided whether to place cameras in livestock yards, said spokesman Gary Mickelson.
The National Meat Association, an industry trade group, held a conference call Wednesday for representatives of its member companies to discuss the installation of cameras at their plants.
“Nobody wants to be the next Westland/Hallmark and get caught by surprise like that,” said Jeremy Russell, the association’s director of communications and community relations.
New USDA emphasis on livestock handling
The use of independent audits “isn’t the best way to ensure that the public is well-protected,” according to Chris Waldrop of Consumer Federation of America.
“The audits can definitely be a problem, because the company … for the most part knows exactly when (the auditors) are coming and can adjust their procedures accordingly,” Waldrop said. “You’ve got to have the federal and state governments involved, as well.”
Under an order the U.S. Agriculture Department issued March 10, inspectors are to spend 50 to 100 percent more time on humane-handling issues than they normally do, until May 6.
The shift in inspection priorities is most pronounced in plants that supply the federal school lunch program and in facilities that slaughter older cattle. If inspectors in those plants normally spent an hour and half daily on livestock-handling issues, they will now spend three hours a day.
The three Iowa facilities that supply the school lunch program are the Farmland and Swift plants in Denison and Marshalltown that slaughter pigs and a Tyson Foods beef plant in Denison.
The order followed allegations that sick or dying cattle were being slaughtered at the Westland/Hallmark plant, which was one of the largest suppliers for the national school lunch program. The facility primarily slaughtered older dairy cows, but packers generally are banned from slaughtering cattle that can’t walk because of the slight risk that they could carry mad cow disease.
USDA officials say they want to ensure that similar problems are not occurring elsewhere.
The USDA will continue to inspect each carcass, as required by law, but will prioritize other work based upon the relative food-safety risk of the product, said spokeswoman Amanda Eamich.
“We’re not going to sacrifice food safety,” she said.
USDA officials have assured the public that what happened at the California plant was an “isolated incident of egregious violations.”
Reporter Philip Brasher can be reached at (202) 906-8138 and [email protected]