- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The president of the California slaughterhouse at the center of the largest beef recall in U.S. history acknowledged yesterday that cows too sick to stand apparently were forced into the food supply at his plant.

Federal rules mostly ban such cows, known as downer cattle, because they pose a higher risk of causing infections, including mad cow disease.

The admission from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.’s Steve Mendell came after a House subcommittee made him watch undercover video of cattle abuses at the plant. With his head in hand at times, Mr. Mendell saw the tape of cows being dragged by chains, jabbed by forklifts and shocked — methods to get them into position to be slaughtered.

After the screening, Mr. Mendell briefly bowed his head. Then he backed away from assertions in his earlier written testimony that no ill cows at the plant had entered the food supply.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s investigations subcommittee, Rep. Bart Stupak, asked Mr. Mendell whether it was logical to conclude from the videos that at least two downer cows entered the food supply.

“That would be logical, yes sir,” Mr. Mendell said.

“Has your company ever illegally slaughtered, processed, or sold a downer cow?” asked Mr. Stupak, Michigan Democrat.

“I didn’t think we had, sir,” Mr. Mendell said.

Reminding him that he was appearing under oath, lawmakers asked Mr. Mendell why he asserted in the written testimony that the abused cows were headed to be euthanized and not for the food supply.

“I had not seen what I saw here today,” Mr. Mendell said. He said the Agriculture Department had refused to allow him to see some of the undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the United States.

Mr. Stupak pointed out that the video has been posted on the group’s Web site.

After Mr. Mendell’s testimony, his attorney sought to clarify Mr. Mendell’s remarks. Asa Hutchinson, a former GOP congressman from Arkansas who once led the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Mr. Mendell would not dispute logical conclusions drawn by Mr. Stupak about downer cattle illegally entering the food supply.

“But it can’t be conclusive because he does not know all the facts of it, he hasn’t studied it and he only saw one brief shot at it during his testimony,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

The public appearance was Mr. Mendell’s first since the video prompted his plant’s shutdown and last month’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef. Mr. Mendell appeared under subpoena.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Mendell said he has received death threats. He asserted 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 department shut him down and required a recall of beef produced over the past two years.

“Our company is ruined. We cannot continue,” Mr. 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 (Calif.) County prosecutors in a criminal investigation. Lawmakers have criticized Agriculture Department inspection procedures and called for changes.

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