When an investigation packs the kind of force that our Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. exposé has, there are bound to be some counterattacks from the industry and regulators whose conduct has been called into question. For the most part, the counterattacks have been limited to the agribusiness trade press, which has questioned the timing of the release of our investigative results and our motivations. But the mainstream press has generally focused on the problems our investigation exposed, including an important piece in Sunday’s Washington Post about the USDA’s inconsistent policies with respect to handling downer cattle.
And in terms of editorial opinion, almost all of the major papers in the nation have commented on the case, and almost without exception, they have pointed out that the investigation has uncovered major gaps in the food safety system and animal handling rules. The latest come from the heartland and other rural areas—today’s Topeka Capital-Journal and Watertown Daily Times (of upstate New York)—and they are representative of the opinions of editorial boards throughout the nation.
While opinion has been solidly on our side, I do want for the record to address the thoughts of the handful of critics.
1. The isolation theory.
The critics of The HSUS argue that Hallmark is the exception, and that the behavior exhibited by the company "is a terrible business practice." We agree that animal abuse is a terrible business practice, but if the invisible hand of the market alone were to constrain bad behavior, we probably wouldn’t need groups like The Humane Society of the United States. Nor would we even need government inspectors. But the textbook application of business principles is not the real world. In the real world, especially when it comes to animals, some people choose moral shortcuts, and some even violate the law.
One HSUS investigator uncovered abuses that went unnoticed or unattended to by five USDA inspectors at the plant. What’s more, almost every time an animal protection organization has looked into slaughter plant practices, they’ve turned up troubling information.
Without having conducted similar investigations at the hundreds of other cattle slaughter plants in the country, we just can’t know how frequently the scenes we saw from the Hallmark investigation occur elsewhere. To say that we do know that they do not occur is a statement of faith, not fact. If the industry or USDA had known about Hallmark’s abuses, they would have put a stop to it presumably. But they claim they didn’t know, and that fact should make us skeptical about their confident assertions that such conduct does not occur elsewhere.
2. There’s no food safety threat.
The HSUS’s primary mission is to stop and prevent animal cruelty, and that’s been our focus in driving reform in the wake of this investigation. But the mistreatment of animals is often closely connected to other social concerns (e.g., animal cruelty is often linked to domestic abuse or other violent criminal behavior). In this case, there is a tie-in to food safety issues, and we’d be foolish to sidestep a discussion about the very real food safety issues raised by the slaughter of ailing and crippled cows. Decent people revile animal cruelty, but they also react when we make important connections that relate to other social concerns they have.
It is not a new position for The HSUS to argue that it is dangerous policy for this nation to continue to allow the slaughter of downer cattle. While in my testimony to the Senate I said that the risks of transmission of mad cow disease are "vanishingly small," the consequences of such transmission are devastating. I also provided extensive support for claims that downer cows can pass on pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 that afflict tens of thousands of Americans every year. Why take these risks when we can readily stop slaughtering downer cows—who may have been wallowing in fecal matter—and minimize the food safety risks? The industry is guilty of penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior, attempting to squeeze every last dime out of each crippled cow, but losing sight of the costs of recalls, export market closures, the loss of consumer confidence, and more. The industry policy of allowing some downers just doesn’t make economic sense.
Though we have been resolute in pointing out these food safety risks, The HSUS never asked for the meat recall. The USDA initiated the recall because Hallmark/Westland violated the rules governing slaughter, and because those rules are in place for a reason. The rules exist to protect food safety, and the rules were violated.
The story was big from the beginning, but it got major lift after the USDA’s announcement of the 143 million-pound meat recall, with a renewed focus on the food safety issues. That was the USDA’s decision, not The HSUS’s, but we certainly understood why the USDA took a precautionary action in this case.
As I have said before, these are long-term investigations that take months of compiling and analyzing evidence—undercover surveillance work is not a quick hit. After I reviewed the tape produced by our investigator, I was determined to see the people involved prosecuted for animal cruelty. The conduct was reprehensible, and warranted action. There is no general anti-cruelty law at the federal level, and while the behavior documented in the video violated federal animal handling and food safety rules, the USDA does not have the authority to bring criminal charges, except on unrelated matters relating to fraud or when its inspectors are threatened or bribed. Animal cruelty, however, is specifically forbidden in the state of California, and the law provides for criminal penalties.
For The HSUS, the logical move was to turn the evidence over to local law enforcement for a cruelty investigation. Michael Ramos, the San Bernardino District Attorney, is an outstanding public servant, and his office has taken some very important anti-cruelty cases. In working with DAs across the nation, we operate under the general assumption that we cannot and should not release the results of an investigation until charges are filed, so we do not compromise the results of the investigation. That’s standard operating procedure, and we discussed this with the DA’s office in this case.
That said, we knew that there was a strong federal interest here. The DA’s investigation went on for several weeks, and eventually, we spoke to his staff and said we could no longer wait to release the information publicly. The DA’s office understood our position, and at that point, we notified the USDA and then went public.
But for The HSUS’s investigation and the specific way that we handled the information, the Hallmark plant would be operating today and would presumably still be torturing and slaughtering crippled cows. In addition, we have exposed weaknesses in the USDA policy on downers, and we are working on policy changes to ban all downer cattle from the food supply. We’ve exposed gaps in the USDA’s oversight of slaughter plants, and we intend to work with the USDA and the Congress to implement reforms, such as placing video cameras at slaughter plants throughout the nation. And the entire investigation has undoubtedly forced slaughter plants to examine conduct and their adherence to the law. We hope that our investigation has itself served as a check on egregious behavior, and that innocent animals have been spared excessive torment and cruelty.