Westland/Hallmark: Federal meat inspection - Part 1 of our series

This is part one of an eight-part series taking an in-depth look into the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. situation from 2008. The objective of this series is to provide greater detail on what happened and when and why it happened as a result of leaked video footage. It is a story told by those directly involved in investigating the situation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture contains seven mission areas, one of which is the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).

On Jan. 30, 2008, when The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) publicly released videos showing alleged animal abuse of cows at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. that aired repeatedly on a national television network, I was the undersecretary for food safety at USDA with responsibility for political oversight of FSIS. My boss at the time, the agriculture secretary, was former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer. He was in just his second day on the job.

In 2008, USDA/FSIS had responsibility and regulatory authority for all meat and poultry slaughter and processing and also regulatory authority over the production of egg products. The Food & Drug Administration basically has responsibility for all other foods consumed in the U.S., including shell eggs, fish, seafood and dairy products.

FSIS's guiding statutes are: (1) the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906, (2) the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957, (3) the Egg Products Act of 1970 and (4) the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) of 1958/1978.

For the discussion that follows in this series, I will be taking a closer look at FMIA and HMSA, because they are paramount to understanding the actions of FSIS during the time period discussed.

FMIA was written and passed into law as a result of a book Upton Sinclair wrote in 1905 called The Jungle, which described inhumane treatment of Eastern European immigrants working in meatpacking houses in Chicago, Ill. Sinclair also described the filth in the plants and the unhealthy practices that went into making sausages and other processed meats.

The result was President Theodore Roosevelt signing FMIA. However, was it to increase the safety of meat and protect public health, or was it to reverse the negative image of American meat among international trading partners?

Sinclair hoped his book would spark a social revolution to create safer and more humane working conditions, but instead, it inspired the Pure Food & Drug Act and FMIA that ultimately would make America's food supply safer.

Writing in Cosmopolitan in 1906 as his book took America by storm, Sinclair said: “Perhaps you will be surprised to be told that I failed in my purpose. ... I wished to frighten the country by a picture of what its industrial masters were doing to their victims; entirely by chance I had stumbled on another discovery — what they were doing to the meat supply of the civilized world. In other words, I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

It can be argued whether HSUS was aiming for our hearts or our stomachs — maybe both. I will get to that in a minute.

While the workforce in America's packing and processing facilities is no longer predominantly Eastern European immigrants, it still is comprised of people who may not speak English as their primary language and perhaps have little understanding of U.S. laws and cultures. These characteristics can lead to difficulties creating an educated, high-performing workforce.

The inhumane working conditions have been largely resolved, but in a subsequent column, I will discuss the inherent difficulties when workers cannot read or comprehend English well. For now, I will focus on FMIA and its invested powers to FSIS.

FMIA brought about, by law, the mandatory inspection of every livestock animal in motion and at rest before slaughter, which was especially important following issues with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a disease transmissible to people who consume beef contaminated with the prions that cause the disease, which affects the cow's ability to ambulate normally. FMIA also requires mandatory postmortem inspection of every carcass after the hide has been removed. These two tasks — which are separate and occur in two distinctly different areas of the plant — are usually performed by the FSIS veterinarian at the slaughter facility.

In addition, FMIA sets explicit sanitary standards for slaughterhouses and allows USDA to issue grants of inspection and monitor slaughter and processing operations, enabling the agency to enforce food safety regulatory requirements.

The mandatory inspection of every four-legged animal in motion and at rest requires a continuous inspection workforce presence at all slaughter facilities. If inspectors are not there to inspect the animals and carcasses, the plant cannot, by law, operate.

Inspection of carcasses and live animals is usually done by the FSIS public health veterinarian (PHV) assigned to the plant, although at times it may be done by other specially trained FSIS personnel.

While out in the holding pens checking on animal health, the PHV may also be observing for inhumane handling activities, as might all other FSIS personnel when on breaks, etc.

The important point to emphasize here is that the PHV and other FSIS personnel are NOT in the pens 24/7. Their primary task is to protect public health, and that includes inspecting carcasses and organs in the interior of the establishments to which they are assigned and checking for sanitary violations.

For further-processing establishments, the interpretation of daily, continuous inspection differs. Each processing plant will, in theory, receive a daily visit and inspection by an FSIS inspector, but since there are no live animals to inspect at rest and in motion, there may be more than one processing plant on the inspector's circuit.

Today, nearly 6,000 federal slaughter and processing facilities have daily, continuous inspection by at least one of more than 7,600 inspection personnel who are federal employees paid with U.S. taxpayer dollars. These numbers clearly show why FSIS cannot have personnel in the pens all day long.

Specifically at Westland/Hallmark, from 2005 to 2007, the years leading up to its massive recall — the largest meat recall in U.S. history, which led to the company's failure — the PHV inspected 370,000 head of cattle on the hoof. During that same time period, the PHV at Westland/Hallmark condemned 16,000 live animals and/or carcasses, or about 20 per day. That equates to 4.6% of all animals presented for inspection being rejected and sent to rendering. The PHV was protecting public health.

FSIS employees, as part of their responsibility to enforce HMSA, temporarily closed 12 plants in 2007 for observed inhumane handling violations. The public was not outraged by these actions, because FSIS does not seek publicity for simply doing its job, and there were no undercover videos.

After the undercover footage was released on Jan. 30, 2008, FSIS immediately stepped up its surveillance and auditing of plants supplying meat to the National School Lunch Program to determine if Westland/Hallmark was an anomaly or if inhumane handling was more widespread. The increased intensity did lead to the temporary closure of 22 establishments in the first few months following the HSUS video release.

I will cover more on humane handling in the next column, but first, here's a closer look at one oddity of FMIA. The original FMIA specifically listed cattle, sheep, goats, horses and pigs as the four-legged animals that would fall under federal government inspection and regulation.

Bison were not included since they were not really a big feature of American meals in 1906. Bison, therefore, fell under FDA inspection or, more realistically, no inspection. For 100 years, if a bison plant wanted to ship and sell across state lines or internationally, it had to petition FSIS to provide daily, continuous inspection, but unlike for pigs and cows, bison plants had to pay for it.

In the meantime, Congress, in its collective wisdom, moved daily catfish inspection from FDA to USDA in 2008 but left all other fish and seafood with FDA (and, hence, with little inspection).

It is my personal opinion that a bison looks more like a steer on steroids than a catfish does, but we weren't importing bison meat from Asia in 2008. We were raising catfish on farms in Mississippi, though.

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