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Oversight ‘flaw’ led to meat recall

CHINO, Calif. – Steve Mendell poured millions of dollars into stainless-steel paneling and state-of-the art cleaning systems to upgrade the decades-old meatpacking plant he has run since the late 1990s. But while Mr. Mendell focused his attention on the inside of the five-acre plant, he and other top executives at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. spent little time monitoring the facility’s outdoor cattle pens, plant employees say.

Those cattle pens are where an undercover worker for the Humane Society of the United States, a private organization, secretly filmed workers last fall forcing sick or injured cows to their feet using forklifts and water hoses. Such downer cows are generally banned from the food supply because they carry higher risks of diseases, including mad-cow disease. The video helped trigger the largest recall of beef in U.S. history last month.

Mr. Mendell “ran a great ship … except for this one fatal flaw” in how he managed the cattle pens, says Cal Faello, former head of a beef-industry trade group, who has spoken with Mr. Mendell a handful of times since the crisis began.

Mr. Mendell, 55 years old, didn’t respond to requests for comment. After failing to show up when invited to appear before a congressional committee last month, he has been subpoenaed to testify Wednesday at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives on meat safety. It is unclear if or how he plans to answer questions.

Hallmark/Westland halted operations last month, and it is unclear whether the privately held company will reopen. The Department of Agriculture says there is very little health risk from eating the recalled meat, which totaled 143 million pounds dating to February 2006. No illnesses have been reported.

The plant began slaughtering cattle in 1960, says Donald Hallmark Sr., a 73-year-old former owner. The plant for years was a major buyer of older, spent dairy cows from the many dairy farms in the Inland Valley, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

Mr. Mendell established Westland Meat Co. in Commerce, Calif., near Los Angeles, in 1990, and relocated the company to Chino later that decade. The company didn’t slaughter cattle, but bought fresh beef from companies such as Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and churned it into ground beef and other products.

In 1993, Mr. Mendell’s company and other meat suppliers came under scrutiny when four children died and 600 other people were sickened by burgers sold by fast-food chain Jack in the Box Inc. Although the exact source of the E. coli bacteria found in the beef was never determined, Westland was among companies that settled legal claims totaling $58.5 million.

Hallmark drew its own scrutiny in the 1990s. The Inland Valley Humane Society in neighboring Pomona found recurring problems with the plant’s handling of downer cows, which can’t walk or stand on their own, said Brian Sampson, the society’s supervisor of animal services.

Mr. Mendell acquired full control of Mr. Hallmark’s company in 2003, Mr. Hallmark says. One reason was that Westland wanted to become a supplier of fresh beef to the national school-lunch program run by the USDA, and needed a slaughterhouse, says Anthony Magidow, general manager of Hallmark/Westland.

The Hallmark plant had struggled financially for years, Mr. Hallmark says, but when Mr. Mendell took over, he invested heavily in the facility. To qualify for the school-lunch program, the plant had to meet many requirements, including having its financial statements reviewed and submitting a technical explanation about how it controlled germs.

The plant began supplying beef to the school-lunch program in 2003 and quickly became one of its largest suppliers. The USDA named the company its Supplier of the Year for the lunch program for the 2004-05 school year, based on criteria including timely delivery of products and high levels of customer service.

Hallmark/Westland supplied about 27 million pounds of beef for revenue of $39 million to food-nutrition programs, including the school-lunch program, in the year ended Sept. 30, 2007.

Hallmark/Westland also sold beef to companies such as Jack in the Box and the hamburger chain In-N-Out Burger. The company’s sales reached about $100 million annually in recent years and was profitable, Mr. Magidow says.

With Mr. Mendell running Hallmark/Westland, the local Humane Society received far fewer complaints about animal treatment than it did under the previous ownership, says William Harford, the group’s executive director.

Still, in December 2005, the USDA cited the company for noncompliance for being overly aggressive in using electric prods to move cattle, among other violations. The company responded by retraining cattle-pen staff, it said in a statement to the USDA. It also said it would continue to train workers “on the importance of humane handling …and will continue to monitor the corrals.”

But this past October, when the undercover Humane Society worker took a job in the cattle pens, he received no formal training, according to statements he gave to the Chino police. On his first day, he reported to Pablo Salas, a manager who told the new employee not to be cruel to the animals or to use electrical cattle prods.

The undercover worker, who wore a hidden videocamera underneath his shirt during the six weeks he worked at the Hallmark/Westland plant, told Chino police that the plant’s owners rarely came outside to observe activities in the cattle pens. Another worker told police that Mr. Salas only came outside to the cattle pens for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Mr. Salas couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Humane Society worker filmed Daniel Ugarte Navarro, the pen manager, and other workers forcing downer cows to their feet using high-pressure water hoses, forklifts and electrical cattle prods. The video led to the arrest of two workers, including Mr. Navarro, who could face more than five years in prison.

Mr. Navarro couldn’t be reached for comment. In a statement he gave to Chino police before he was arrested, Mr. Navarro said he felt pressure to ensure that 500 cows were slaughtered each day. If he didn’t meet that quota, he said, Mr. Salas would get angry. The company suspended Mr. Salas after the video emerged.

The recall also has pointed a spotlight at the Department of Agriculture, which assigns full-time government inspectors to monitor safety at meat-packing plants. Lawmakers and consumer groups have criticized the department for failing to catch problems at the slaughterhouse. The USDA has suspended three employees pending the outcome of an agency investigation. One of them was the plant’s supervising veterinarian, Gabriel Gurango, who worked on site for 20 years.

Dr. Gurango “did not spend a great deal of time” in the cattle pens because he was responsible for so many other duties, many of them inside the plant, says William G. Hughes, general counsel for the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, who is advising Dr. Gurango. Mr. Hughes contends the USDA didn’t have enough inspectors on hand to monitor food safety at the plant. A USDA spokeswoman says the plant was “fully staffed” with five inspectors.

Dr. Gurango, a 68-year-old USDA veterinarian who oversaw four inspectors at the plant, was in the cattle pens twice daily, at 6:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., the undercover Humane Society worker told police. When a government inspector was present, Mr. Navarro would tone down his methods for trying to get cows to stand up, the Humane Society worker told police.

Dr. Gurango didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Mr. Hughes, the attorney for the veterinarians’ trade group, said in an interview that the veterinarian was appalled by the video and was unaware of the activities.

Dr. Gurango made at least three surprise visits daily to the cattle pens to observe animal-handling practices, Mr. Hughes says, adding that Dr. Gurango had to spend a significant amount of time inside the plant each day determining whether meat from the older cows was fit for human consumption.

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