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TRANSCRIPT: USDA Officials Hold Technical Briefing Regarding Inhumane Handling Allegations
Washington January 31, 2008
MODERATOR: Hello. It's Corry Schiermeyer, deputy director of Communications for USDA. I hope you all are planning to be on the media briefing conference call today. And first let me go through who we're going to have on the call, if you did not have the advisory, so that you can have who they are, their titles and their spellings.
Dr. Kenneth Petersen, KENNETH PETERSEN. And he's assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for the Food Safety Inspection Service here at USDA.
We will also have Bill Sessions, BILL SESSIONS, and he's associate deputy administrator for Livestock and Seed Program with the Agriculture Marketing Service here at USDA.
And we'll also have Eric Steiner, ERIC STEINER, associate deputy administrator for Special Nutrition Programs with the Food and Nutrition Service.
Thank you for joining us today as we follow up on what we released yesterday. I hope you all had a chance to get it, but we did release the statement by Secretary Schafer yesterday afternoon. Obviously everyone at USDA is deeply concerned about the allegations made regarding inhumane handling of nonambulatory disabled cattle in a federally inspected slaughter establishment. And that's why we're here today.
So I am going to turn it over first to Dr. Kenneth Petersen.
DR. KENNETH PETERSEN: Okay, thank you. Good afternoon everybody, and I appreciate you joining us this afternoon on the call. First of all, I want to say that the behaviors that we observed in the video that was circulated yesterday we certainly consider egregious and unacceptable humane handling practices. We certainly take these allegations very, very seriously. I do not think they depict anything that anyone would consider to be acceptable.
I want to briefly describe what FSIS does and then get into how we're intending to proceed with the investigation.
First of all, FSIS is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We're responsible for assuring the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome, correctly labeled and packaged. We have approximately 7,800 inspection personnel that provide inspection to more than 6,200 federally inspected establishments. We also enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act which is a law that requires humane handling of livestock at all slaughter facilities.
Every head of livestock that comes to slaughter in the United States is inspected prior to slaughter what we call ante-mortem, and it's inspected on ante-mortem by either one of my public health veterinarians or one of our inspectors. And what they look for is to make sure that the animal is suitable to proceed to slaughter. Some animals we condemn on ante-mortem and most animals upon that inspection pass ante-mortem inspection and then proceed into slaughter.
In addition to our routine ante-mortem inspection, inspectors regularly observe the handling of animals at any time before, during and after that ante-mortem inspection, and we take immediate control if we observe any humane handling violations.
And the way we do this is, we recognize that plant employees may be aware of the presence of our FSIS inspectors, obviously we generate some interest when we're out in the ante-mortem area, and so we purposely instruct our inspectors to conduct these human handling verification activities in a way to the best of their ability so that they're not observed by plant employees. And what they look for is things like making sure the animals have water, making sure that when they're unloaded from trucks that they are done so in a acceptable manner, that animals are moved around the facility in a humane manner. So that's the kind of thing they look for.
We do know that our inspectors at the Hallmark facility were conducting these regular observations in the ante-mortem pen areas for the humane handling activities that I mentioned. And we know that because we keep records of this activity every day. At this facility we were spending about an hour and a half a day. It's a one-shift facility that operates roughly eight hours a day on the slaughter side. We're spending about an hour and a half a day, again randomly throughout the day, doing these humane handling assessments in addition to our routine ante-mortem inspection.
Then after ante-mortem inspection, FSIS also conducts post-mortem inspection of each carcass and part of the meat that's going to be intended for use in food to ensure that it's safe and wholesome for consumers. So in addition to that, we also take microbiological samples for pathogens such as e-coli 0157H7 and salmonella. We oversee execution of the plant prevention based food safety system, what we call HACCP. So in essence we're verifying that the sanity and food safety practices conducted by the plant are being employed.
Inspectors have a continuous presence, and they directly oversee the execution of the plant's food safety responsibility.
We've begun aggressively investigating those allegations, and we have a team at the facility as of this morning. All slaughter plants are subject to strict regulations that actually prescribe humane handling and slaughter requirements. They prescribe acceptable practices, and obviously plants are subject to those regulations. Those regulations have the force of law. Should we observe humane handling violations in any facility, our workforce is trained not only to identify what's acceptable and unacceptable, but also trained to act immediately when they observe any egregious activities in particular.
In fact last year out of the number of facilities I mentioned, we did suspend 12 establishments in calendar year 2007 for egregious humane handling violations that were witnessed by inspection personnel. In addition, we documented 650 other inhumane practices which could include things such as not having adequate water for the animals, things that are not egregious but nevertheless unacceptable.
So clearly we're enforcing these activities on an ongoing basis.
As we look at the video, it does obviously reflect some significant allegations. But what we need to do is, as part of our investigation, is put the facts to what the allegations imply. Currently there's no evidence that any of the animals, particularly downers in particular, did in fact enter the food supply. That's going to be one key activity we're going to focus on. This is a facility that slaughters cold dairy cow, so certainly these are animals that obviously have left their milk production life. And so some are certainly injured. And that's why they're coming to slaughter. But if they're injured, that's one thing. But they cannot be down and enter the food supply. So we're going to look at that very closely.
We have regulations that prohibit this from occurring, and doing so would be subject to the plant if downers were slaughtered to rather significant sanctions. We do have rules that prohibit nonambulatory disabled cattle, primarily because that's part of our BSE control strategy. BSE controls in the United States are part of an interlocking strategy that involves other agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, significant surveillance activities, obviously prohibition of downer cattle from slaughter.
And then inside the slaughter facility actually one of the key activities for mitigating any possible risk from BSE in this country, one of the key activities is control of what we call specified risk materials, things such as spinal cord and that kind of material, preventing that from entering the food supply.
So in summary I think the tape depicts certainly unacceptable practices. However, at this point they represent allegations. We will determine the facts, and we will promptly initiate appropriate actions once we determine those facts.
So with that, I will turn it back to our moderator.
MODERATOR: Sure. Next we will go to Bill Sessions of the Agricultural Marketing Service.
MR. BILL SESSIONS: Good afternoon. The Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for developing and enforcing contractual and specification requirements for meat and meat products purchased for federal food and nutrition programs. The Ag Marketing Service requires that all meat products purchased for federal food nutrition programs be produced in compliance with all applicable Food Safety and Inspection Service food safety regulations. Raw materials and ground beef products must be processed under FSIS supervision in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
Additional requirements related to quality in food safety are contained in the Agricultural Marketing Service contractual specification requirements to meet the demands of recipient agencies and their customers. Agencies requirements are similar in nature to those of other large-scale purchasers of ground beef products.
Some examples of these requirements would include that all product purchased must be of domestic origin, that the harvest process must include two pathogen intervention steps, one of which must be a critical control point in the Food Safety and Inspection Service recognized Food Safety Plan. The contractor must be able to trace back and trace forward all products supplied under contract, from harvest to delivery. Other requirements over and above Food Safety and Inspection Service requirements include those related to fat content, excluded materials, metal detection, processing and storage temperatures, packing and packaging requirements.
Especially important is Agricultural Marketing Service microbial requirements for boneless beef and ground beef end items. Every production line of boneless beef and ground beef is tested for standard plate count, total coliforms, generic e-coli, e-coli 0157H7 and salmonella.
Additionally, ground beef is tested for coagulus positive staphylococcus. This testing is over and above that mentioned earlier by Dr. Petersen. There is a zero tolerance for e-coli 0157 and salmonella. Critical limits are set for the other indicator microbes.
In reviewing the microbial test results for products produced by Westland Meats for federal food and nutrition programs since January 2007, it is important to note that the testing of both boneless beef and ground beef have resulted in only one positive for salmonella, which this part was excluded from delivery to AMS. There were no positive results for e-coli 0157H7. During this time, over 500 individual analyses were performed by AMS designated laboratories. Relative to the action taken by the Department to suspend Westland from producing and shipping products or receiving further contracts for federal food and nutrition programs, this action was taken under the Federal Acquisition Regulations. These regulations provide federal contracting officers the authority to temporarily suspend contractors for cause pending the results of an investigation.
AMS will continue this suspension of Westland Meats as a supplier until the results of the ongoing investigation are known. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And next we're going to have Eric Steiner, and I have a correction on his title. It's Eric Steiner, associate administrator for Food and Nutrition Service. So, Eric.
MR. ERIC STEINER: Thank you. This is Eric Steiner with the Food and Nutrition Service. USDA has done everything possible to notify our nutrition program operators about this issue. Food derived from Westland was delivered to the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations.
The Food and Nutrition Service activated our rapid alert system to first notify states and state agencies who may have received food products derived from Westland and then notified all other states and state agencies about the issue. All food products derived from Westland and the nutrition programs have been put on hold pending USDA's investigation of the possible violation of an existing regulation.
I'll turn it back to Corry.
MODERATOR: Great. We will open it up to questions, but first of all let me just say, this is a briefing for media, so I will take questions from the media. Thank you. Operator.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone telephone. Please make sure you record your name so that you may be announced. Our first question comes from Bill Tomson. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Hi. My name's Bill Tomson. I'm with Dow Jones News Wires. I'm just wondering, Dr. Petersen, you said you're going to try to confirm whether or not this happened, but whether or not downer cattle were going into the food supply, but I don't see how you can do this. I mean, do you actually expect to go down there and ask them if they were doing anything illegal, and people to say, well yes they were? I mean, I don't understand how you're going to do that.
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. Well, clearly something occurred in this facility. What we're going to determine is, where on the facility did it occur, when did it occur meaning what time of day? Was it early in the morning, late at night? Or not late at night; obviously it was during the day, but before the shift, during the shift, after the shift. So where was this occurring? Where are the trucks, where are my inspectors as far as doing their ante-mortem and humane handling inspection activities? Where are they in relation to where these events occurred?
So that's going to tell me a lot. And then we, as I said we have an investigative team, certainly have people who are trained to take statements. And as with any investigation whether it's us or your local law enforcement, when you start querying people and asking them to say what they did and say what they knew, you can get consistent statements, you can get inconsistent statements. And then you marry that up with what the plant program is, what the plant said they were doing, and you never know where it will end up, but I'm reasonably confident we will get to the bottom of what was occurring at this facility, where it was occurring, who knew about it, and who did or did not do anything to stop it from happening.
MODERATOR: Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Andy Dworkin. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Hi. I'm with the Oregonian Newspaper. The video. It appears like the workers are essentially trying to get these cattle up and walking, at least in many cases. I assume so they are then technically not nonambulatory cattle. So I'd like you guys to talk a little bit more about how "nonambulatory" is defined and when it's defined and what is and isn't acceptable to try and get cattle up and walking.
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. Well nonambulatory, I do have a regulatory definition. Somebody's going to get it for me so I can give you the full text, but basically animals that have a variety of either ligament damage, muscle injury; they could have some metabolic defects; you could certainly have fractures. These are dairy cattle, so you can have fractured pelvises, you could have fractured legs as well as some kind of foot maladies. So there's a whole variety of reasons. So we have a regulatory definition that really outlines I think what I just said.
And so they are coming to slaughter, and so they have some of these various defects. Some of them go down because they can only walk so far, and maybe they need a little time period to rest. And with some - you cannot be hoisting them, you cannot be overly prodding them to get them to move on the slaughter, only what we call the "official premises." That is unacceptable practice. So as I said, I'm going to find out where in fact this was occurring.
So some of them, given some time, will get up on their own and sometimes you'd be quite surprised how quickly they'll move. Some of them won't get up, and so they would be nonambulatory disabled. They would be ineligible for slaughter.
So that's the kind of assessment we make. But when we do our ante-mortem inspection, just the mere fact that he's standing does not make the animal ambulatory. I do expect them, when we do our ante mortem inspection they look at the animals both at rest and in motion. They don't have to be the fastest one on the block, but I do expect them to be moving and walking. And so they could walk on three legs, they could limp along on four legs; many of them of course are just perfectly normal and going about their way.
So that's how we make our judgment on ante-mortem. That's what I expect as far as moving animals when they get to the plant. Certainly what we saw in the video, moving them with bucket-loaders and that kind of thing, if that's the kind of practice, if we observe that kind of thing I can assure you my inspectors would act immediately to suspend the facility.
REPORTER: Okay. And just to follow up quickly, the Federal Register earlier, July of last year you published some final rules-but in it, it says that "FSIS intends to initiate a separate action to discuss measures that may be necessary to ensure that nonambulatory disabled cattle and other nonambulatory livestock are humanely handled in connection with slaughter." Have you guys followed up on that since last July? Are you working on any sort of separate discussion now?
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. What that's getting at is really the statutory provision for humane handling, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and it talks about handling - you know animals that are slaughtered are handled humanely. But then it also specifically says, handling in connection with slaughter." And so that's an important provision. We have used that provision for example when I've had say trucks loaded and waiting to be unloaded at the facility. Just because they are not on the plant premises, I may still have jurisdiction over those animals and be able to exert our authority.
What you're referencing in the July 2007 Federal Register was one of the comments that we got in response to the proposed rule. But because we did not actually propose that provision, meaning how broad are we going to exert this authority on handling in connection with slaughter, because we didn't propose it to the public specifically, it was a comment in the final rule, we are developing regulations as we said we intend to do, another proposed rule to address that issue.
REPORTER: Okay, and that would basically say - does it go to the track, or just how broad that authority is?
DR. PETERSEN: Yes. It will better clarify for all to know just because - they may be prior to the ante-mortem pens, and you Mr. Plant should not think that I won't exert my jurisdiction.
REPORTER: Okay. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alan Bjerga . Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Yes. Alan Bjerga with Bloomberg News. Just a couple quick questions. It was alluded to earlier from Mr. Petersen that it's possible that these animals portrayed in the video never actually even made it into the food supply. I'd be interested in knowing why you would think they would not have.
And then my second question is, as you're investigating what's been your communication with the Human Society of the US, since it would be reasonable to expect that they might know some more details about the timing of the video and the filming itself.
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. Well, we'll do the last one. The Humane Society, we've obviously started as of yesterday some discussions with them. We're interested in getting as much video as we can. With other investigations we've done, we've asked to interview their investigators. I would hope that that would be provided to us on this occasion. I don't know why it wouldn't be, but obviously we'll be asking them for that.
And so we would directly query to marry up what you'd found on the tape, maybe some other things that aren't on the tape that you observed, and people and names and places, you know, and that kind of thing.
So what makes us not believe? Much of what we saw in the tape was moving animals around, now certainly moving them around in an egregious, unacceptable manner. Every federal establishment knows that nonambulatory animals cannot go into the food supply, and I can sometimes pass an animal on ante-mortem. It's moving around. And then subsequently it goes down. The plant is obligated to notify us and not allow that animal to go into the food supply.
If they fail to do that, that puts them in what we call the prohibited activities part of the statute; that is not where you want to be. That can subject you to some very severe sanctions.
So it's possible the animals went down after we did ante-mortem, and then the facility was moving them back out of the slaughter chain. Now perhaps they moved them in an unacceptable manner, but the fact remains, did they go into the food supply?
So I don't know that for a fact. And so again I have allegations, but that's the kind of thing I do need to nail down. And I think by querying various players we will be able to reconcile: did somebody allow this to occur? They went down, they failed to notify us, and they allowed them to go into the food supply.
I don't have evidence of that, but I'm going to be interested in getting a handle on it.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Steve Cornet. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Hello. This is Steve Cornet (sp) with Farm Journal Media, Beef Today Magazine. I'm curious, when you say you're going to ask to interview the investigator, do you all have subpoena power in this sort of an investigation?
DR. PETERSEN: I can unfortunately give you a partial answer to that. It depends on the investigation. As was suggested in the press release by the Secretary yesterday, it is a multi-agency investigation, from FSIS. I do have the Agricultural Marketing Service, and some other folks in USDA. But the Secretary has also requested that the Office of Inspector General be a participant in the investigation.
I don't do a lot of these humane handling investigations during the course of the year, which is obviously a good thing. We do do some. But typical investigations do not involve OIG. When OIG gets involved it may be because there are other sanctions that need to be looked at.
If OIG, depending how the investigation goes, then my understanding is OIG could be in a position to subpoena individuals for declarations and that kind of thing.
So it depends on where the investigation goes. Again, I have no reason to believe the Humane Society won't make their person available. Other animal rights and humane handling groups I've interacted with in the past have typically made their investigators available. They think, all of us think it's a constructive way to proceed to get the best information and get to the best conclusion.
So we're starting out, we think things will be compliant. If not, then depending on where the investigation goes we could be in a position to compel them to give us information.
REPORTER: The other question I had is, for nonambulatory cattle that are moving out of the food supply, out of the food chain, are there humane treatment guidelines for moving downer cows?
DR. PETERSEN: Yes. They cannot be-well, we'll start with, there's kind of two prongs to that. If an animal is nonambulatory on a federally inspected facility, you cannot be as we saw in the video-again, I need to find out where this occurred-you cannot be chaining them and dragging them. You cannot be lifting them in front-loaders. That is just flatly unacceptable. And so if say we did ante-mortem inspection and observed a nonambulatory animal, we would condemn that animal. The animal is humanely euthanized on the spot and then moved. That's typically what happens.
So they're obviously not alive when they're moved, you know, off the facility. That's not what we observed obviously in the video tape. There are ways to humanely move a large animal around, things such as we call them like stone boats, which are what they sound like, very heavy material. You can have some individuals rock the animal up on to the boat, and then you can move them around. But usually if they're not moving around, most prudent establishments, and this applies to the vast majority of establishments that we regulate in an ongoing basis, take humane handling quite seriously. They understand that it's good for business, it's good for food safety to treat animals humanely, and there's ways to do that.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steve Kay. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Hello. This is Steve Kay of Cattle Buyers Weekly. Dr. Petersen, obviously USDA suspended Westland as a supplier to food programs. However, I've seen no evidence or indication that FSIS also suspended inspection at Hallmark firstly. So is that correct? And so my follow-up question, does FSIS have the authority to suspend inspection of the slaughter facility if it finds egregious practices such as the ones that we're talking about today? And secondly, as far as the 12 suspensions of establishments or suspensions of 12 establishments last year, what were those suspensions involved? And are all those establishments, did they quickly come back to production?
DR. PETERSEN: Let me see if I can sort through that, and you can remind me if I forget one. I'll start with the last one. The 12 establishments, again egregious inhumane handling is a violation. So I don't have the actual violations in front of me. Typically those would be events that inspection personnel observed. Anything that you saw - well, not anything. Virtually everything you saw in the video would be the kind of thing that, if it occurred, we would execute an immediate suspension, including things like over-hot-shotting them with these electric prods, dragging animals that are down. That would be the kind of thing that is no doubt caught up in those 12 plants.
And then when a plant, we suspend inspection, meaning "you don't operate, effective immediately." And so everything stops. Then any plant we suspend, and we suspend for other reasons of course not strictly related to food safety - but the plant has to describe, put in place a program that describes why this will not happen again. And these are not just pieces of paper that we accept and say, thank you. What occurred, how did it occur, what are they going to do to fix it, and what are they going to do to know that it's working on an ongoing basis? So we look for rather rigorous controls to be instituted to correct the problem.
Sometimes that can take a matter of a day or so, sometimes it could take a matter of weeks for them to get it right; and it doesn't matter to me as long as they get it right at the end whether it's a day or a month.
And now as far as the suspension of their commodities under AMS, there's several things. As was mentioned by Mr. Sessions, AMS executed a contractual provision to suspend their production of a product for the school lunch program, meaning the plant entered into a voluntary contract with the agency, and obviously with themselves. And so they must have had contractual provisions to suspend it.
We of course have rather sweeping authority to regulate establishments. And as I suggested, the 12 establishments that were suspended were where I directly observed what occurred. Here, I have a videotape, and like any law enforcement personnel, I am obligated to follow appropriate chains of evidence. The plant does have some due process. I do have to exercise my constitutional authorities to get the facts right. And then should the facts go let's say the wrong way for the plant, then we could take an action at the appropriate time.
So I do need to, as I suggested at the top, find out what actually does the tape represent. We know that it represents something that's rather unacceptable. But what are the facts as far as the tape, the chain of evidence? Where did it occur, who knew, and all of that stuff? That will lead me or not lead me to taking a direct enforcement action.
REPORTER: Just so that I understand you clearly, you suspended Westland for reasons you outlined, but you did not suspend inspection at Hallmark because they were allegations rather than what an inspector directly observed?
DR. PETERSEN: Yes. There were allegations at this point rather than I'd say hard facts of evidence that I can - a suspension is a legal action against the plant. And we don't take that lightly. We don't hesitate to do it, but we don't take it lightly, a legal action where obviously where we stop any business from operating.
And so it doesn't mean we have to take forever to get the information we need.
What we have done in the interim is to increase our inspection activities at the plant. Obviously, as I suggested, we have a team on-site today, but we also increased, I mentioned our human verification activities that I do as a normal course of business. We've increased that activity at the facility as long as they are operating.
So that's, it's not business as usual at the plant, but their contract is suspended. Their ability to operate under the FSIS inspection regimen is under close scrutiny, but they can still operate.
REPORTER: So very quickly, if the allegations are verified and proven, would you then go ahead and suspend inspection at Hallmark Meat Packing?
DR. PETERSEN: I'm kind of on the front end; I can't speculate on where the facts will lead me. I have all the authority I need to do whatever the facts need me to.
REPORTER: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Next question?
OPERATOR: Jeannie Otto, your line is open. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Jeanine Otto from the Illinois AgriNews. And my question is for Dr. Petersen. The video was shot last fall by all reports, and it was shot over a six-week period. As the person who's responsible for part of our food safety system, are you concerned about the lag time it took for the video to get into your hands and the fact that it was made public before HSUS sent it to your agency?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, I am concerned, and actually I'm a little disappointed. Again, I don't know where and when this occurred at that particular facility, and I think Secretary Schafer made his feelings quite clear on it in his press release yesterday when he said it was unfortunate that we were not made aware of these allegations at the time.
And there are several reasons for that. I do, I think I mentioned it on this call, interact with some other animal rights organizations who do investigations. And many of those other organizations, one in particular, will share us the facts before they go public. And I think if you talk with them, they would share my view that that's a constructive way to proceed because FSIS can start initiating its investigation before anybody really knows what it is we're investigating. And so that's how we prefer to proceed. I have no reservations about anybody going public with any information they have. But sometimes if we can get a little bit of a lead-time we can do our investigation a little bit differently.
But that doesn't constrain me proceeding with the information I have today, and we're moving aggressively now that we have the information.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Dave Russell. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Dave Russell with the Brownfield Ag Network. I have two questions, first for Dr. Petersen and then one for Eric Steiner. Dr. Petersen, have inspection procedures changed at other facilities since these allegations?
DR. PETERSEN: No, because I have a continuous presence at all of these facilities. And as I suggested the number of violations we see for humane handling errors during the course of a year are relatively low. They are all unacceptable, but they are relatively low. I said 12 suspensions. That's out of over 6,000 plants that we could potentially suspend. So 12 is a bad number, but it doesn't happen all the time. So any suggestion that this does happen all the time or that it's pervasive, I don't think is accurate.
I also mentioned we had 650 other occasions where we documented some kind of humane handling error. It may not have been egregious, but they made an error. That 650 is balanced against about 130,000 such citations that I issue yearly for a whole variety of food safety and other regulatory activities.
So I don't have evidence that there's a pervasive problem. We do have rather stringent - we've communicated expectations. We have a variety of directives and instructions as you would imagine to my field personnel on what to do, when to do it. We document a lot of stuff we do on humane handling. We have the appropriate laws in place. And so we're focused on this plant right now. Because of my ongoing presence in these other plants I don't have any evidence that something is awry.
Now if we learn something to contrary in this situation, then we'll make the necessary adjustments.
REPORTER: Thank you. Eric, I have a kind of a two-part question. How much meat is being held? And then, will the suspension lead to a shortage in any areas of the country?
MR. ERIC STEINER: Thank you, Dave. This is Eric Steiner with Food and Nutrition Service. The amount of food that is held is part of -- the data that we're verifying is part of our ongoing investigation. And we hope to have the numbers available just as soon as possible. As to the effect of what the suspension will have for food nationwide, I would add that the food products that, again, were derived from Westland that have gone to the nutrition programs are currently being held by all of our program operators. And as part of our standing operating procedures, whenever we have a concern regarding food in our programs, whether that be a contract violation, a safety concern or a possible regulatory violation, we will ask our cooperators, the folks at the state and local level, to hold the product for a period of a minimum of 10 days. And during that time USDA will work to work out what any final action needs to happen, whether that food can later be used in the programs, or whether that food needs to be ultimately destroyed, or if that food needs to be held for a little longer time as we continue to make our final determinations.
In that time period when our operators are required to store and transport other food and bring in other food to replace what the held food would have been used for, USDA will ultimately bear that cost. We will indemnify the program operators for their inconvenience.
REPORTER: Thanks, Eric.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Vanessa Murphy. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Thank you. Vanessa Murphy from Fox 18 in the Quad Cities. And that's Davenport, Iowa.
Since the possibility of these downed cows entering the food supply has not been ruled out yet, especially would some of this be possibly going to schools? What can the USDA say to maybe concerned parents?
DR. PETERSEN: I'm sorry. We were debating who was going to answer the question. School lunch program - it's Dr. Petersen. I'll be happy to take that. I think we covered some of that. The tenets of food safety as far as meat, poultry and egg products begin with Food Safety and Inspection Service in the U.S. And that begins by having my inspectors on duty in every regulated facility every single day. And so they are the public's eyes and ears on any violations that may occur in food safety.
And I can tell you, they are quite good at what they do, and they are quite serious about what they do. And they don't hesitate to take action when necessary.
And so they inspect a whole raft of carcasses and poultry at slaughter. They inspect a whole variety of ground products and ready-to-eat products to make sure that the public health is protected. But then they also pull a lot of samples, verification samples to provide a separate check that what they're seeing and what the plant is doing is in fact giving us confidence that the food supply is safe. They will do samples for pathogens like e-coli 0157H7, salmonella, lustrum monocytogenes, and frankly as we look at the findings of some of these lab samples today compared to recent years, the positive findings in product is trending down. And that's certainly a credit to the inspection force, it's a credit to the industry that I think the food supply in the U.S. is the safest in the world.
And we also look to our friends in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who monitor food borne illness obviously in the human population at large. And they're tracking incidence of food borne diseases, obviously some of which relate to the products and the pathogens we have a responsibility for. And their human illness data shows that, depending on the pathogens findings are either going down or have leveled off at a relatively low rate.
Our goal is always to reduce to the lowest level possible both pathogens in food and obviously, more importantly, minimize any chance for Americans getting sick.
So I think we would tell the public that we think the food supply is safe, we think we have the workforce and the data that demonstrates that. We think we have the public health community that has information that supports that. But we're always looking for a way to improve on what we're doing today.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rod Leveque. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Yes. I'm from the Daily Bulletin Newspaper in Ontario, California. And I wanted to know if the USDA has any means of tracking where products from this facility have gone into the private sector and if there was any activity on that front.
MR. ERIC STEINER: This is Eric Steiner with the Food Nutrition Service. We do have the ability to track the food derived from Westland that goes through our Nutrition Assistance Programs. That can be done through the contracts that our states and state agencies have for the procurement of food from USDA. But I would mention that USDA itself will purchase and provide about 20 percent of the food that is ultimately used by schools. Schools then purchase 80 percent of the foods themselves on the open market.
DR. PETERSEN: Any regulated meat, poultry or egg products plant is required, by law in this case but also by regulation, to maintain certain records. And so even if, as we heard this occurred some months ago, the plant for my purposes would be required to have records telling me where they distributed the product. And so I don't have reason to. At this point because the commodity part of the spectrum is on hold, I don't have reason to pull those records. But should I be interested in pulling those records, I'm confident that they would have them because they are required to maintain them every single day.
REPORTER: Okay. So at this point there's not an effort to be made to notify perhaps restaurant chains or things of that nature that may have purchased from this company that perhaps they should put a hold on these products?
DR. PETERSEN: No, because again I have a lot of information from this plant, both on the obviously the inspectional side but also plant records as far as what they're doing on their food safety system on an ongoing basis, agency records and department records on pathogen sampling that all point to a singular conclusion that the product coming out of the plant not only meets regulatory requirements but is safe and wholesome.
Now I have these other allegations that I am going to pursue. Again, I have no evidence that any nonambulatory disabled cattle entered the food supply. We will pursue that aggressively, but I today have no evidence that that actually occurred.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Bill Tomson. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Yes. Hi. This is Bill Tomson again with Dow Jones. I suppose this is a question for you, Mr. Sessions. First, correct me if I'm wrong, the whole provision on downer cattle is to keep mad cow disease out of the U.S. food supply. But second of all, all of our, a lot of our negotiations on trade that have reopened up our markets in Japan, Korea, you name it, are based on the fact that those countries have faith that we don't slaughter downer cattle.
Have you gotten any type of concerns, queries, anything from our foreign markets?
DR. PETERSEN: I think I'll take a shot at that one. First, kind of your point about nonambulatory cattle and where they fit in the BSE control spectrum, I touched on it in my opening comments. The feed ban that FDA put in place in 1997 is a key strategy for BSE mitigation. The extensive surveillance since 1990 and most recently that APHIS had done where they sampled over 750,000 at-risk cattle to see if they had BSE, the findings of that were 2 out of over 750,000 were positive. So very, very low numbers, not zero.
Then we have other strategies to mitigate risk, and preventing nonambulatory cattle from getting into the food supply is one of those. And then kind of the last strategy which is actually, when you look at the Harvard Risk Assessment from 2005, control of specified risk material in the slaughter facility - things like spinal cords, lower parts of the small intestines, some things like that - controlling those, preventing them from getting into the food supply are the key mitigation strategy. Everything has a place. No one thing is driving. But it is a multi-hurdle effect.
So that's what the science tells us. And then when we go to OIE, they designated our BSE status as controlled risk, which is a very desirable status because it demonstrates we have science-based programs to control and mitigate potential exposure to BSE in the U.S. So our trading partners are certainly well-aware of all of that. And they hold us carefully accountable for ensuring that we pay attention to all of that all the time, and we do that.
I'm not aware that we've had any specific queries from foreign trading partners on this particular event. And so I think that's appropriate. It may put it into appropriate spectrum. They realize it's an initial investigation. We have some information to gather. And that's where we are. It does not represent any kind of flaw or breakdown in our interlocking strategy.
Again, I'm going to investigate all the facts and make sure that that remains true.
REPORTER: Thanks. Appreciate it.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Andy Dworkin. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: Hi. It's Andy with the Oregonian again. I had one more question about the inspectors that are actually at these facilities. Does this tend to be the same person or people who are there every day? And if so, wouldn't it make it hard for them to be discreet when they are trying to watch these activities and all the workers know who they are?
DR. PETERSEN: Yes, it is the generally the same people. Obviously from time to time I'll have some relief people in there, but largely it's the same people reporting to the same slaughter establishment all the time. What I was suggesting by trying to be discreet is, and I've not been to this particular facility, but some of them as you can imagine are quite large. They can have a large amount of real estate with holding live animals and sometimes they hold live animals adjacent to the slaughter plant, and then they bring them into the slaughter plant in ante-mortem pens where I do my inspection.
So many times because there are various ramps and gates and posts, there are places - again I don't know the details of this plant - but you'd be surprised, there are places you can go and kind of hang out if you will and get a sense of what's going on. You can either see things, you could hear animals bellowing, you know, uncontrollably. And so that's what we ask them to do.
And they're quite good at it. If anybody can do a good job on trying to make themselves discreet, I can assure you it's one of my inspectors.
MODERATOR: We have time for about one more question.
OPERATOR: Our next question then comes from Steve Cornet. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.
REPORTER: This is Steve Cornet with Beef Today again. I'm curious, it seems like maybe the folks had outsmarted the inspection system and knew when they were going to be inspected, knew what was going on. So my question is, can that be happening post mortem as well? Is this a system that's, your system is that easily circumvented?
DR. PETERSEN: Until I know, again, kind of where in the facility did this occur, when did it occur, I don't know that I'd agree that they kind of outsmarted the inspectors. Again, we were going out to the pens on a random basis throughout the day. And so we did that every day, and as I said at the top we did it roughly an hour and a half every day. I would kind of come and go, and they never really know when I'm going to come and go.
But again we're going to make sure we get to the truth of that.
At post-mortem, just because of the nature of the work you have carcasses coming down a moving chain line. It's a very automated process. The inspectors are in that area, particularly where they do their inspection, and we inspect the heads, the viscera, and then the carcass. They are in three points in the plant inside. And so any, not much gets by them I can assure you of that. They do take pride that if something's wrong they are quite good at finding it.
MODERATOR: Thank you all. If you have follow-up questions or didn't get a question, please don't hesitate to contact us in the Office of Communications here at USDA. And that number is 202-720-4623. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That does conclude today's conference call.