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Release No. 0037.08
Office of Communications (202)720-4623

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Transcript of Press Briefing on Humane Handling Procedures of Hallmark/Westfield Company

February 8, 2008


MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. I hope you are all here for the USDA update regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. Again today we have Dr. Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator in the Office of Field Operations for FSIS here at USDA; Bill Sessions, associate deputy administrator for Livestock and Feed Programs for USDA Agriculture Marketing Service; and Eric Steiner, associate administrator for Special Nutrition Programs for USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

Again, this is a media briefing. I know that we have others listening in, but when we do get to the question and answer portion of this call, please make sure that only members of the media queue in to ask a question. And with that we'll get started with Dr. Kenneth Petersen. Thanks.

DR. KENNETH PETERSEN: Okay, thank you and good afternoon everybody. Thanks again for joining us. We thought it would be helpful to give you some updated information to where we are with our activities regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Company.

Since last week, FSIS has been quite diligently working with our partners in USDA, including the Office of the Inspector General, to put facts to the allegations that were made regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Company. On February 4, this past Monday, FSIS issued a Notice of Suspension based on our findings that the establishment's humane handling procedures and programs were insufficient to ensure that all animals were humanely handled at that facility.

Accordingly, the plant cannot operate because we have suspended inspection. Before they can resume operation, they will have to respond to the deficiencies identified in their humane handling programs in a way that ensures animals will be handled and slaughtered humanely.

To date there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations that downer cattle entered the food supply. As you will recall from last week's discussion, that was one of the pieces of information we wanted to look at very carefully. We've looked at a lot of records, confirmed a lot of information, and to date again there's no information to substantiate those allegations. Nevertheless, we will continue to pursue any information to make sure that that remains the case.

I'd like to briefly revisit what we in the department and really in the U.S. government are doing regarding BSE controls in the food supply. The prohibition of downer cattle from entering the food supply is only one measure in an interlocking system of controls that the federal government has in place to protect the safety of the public. Other BSE measures include the feed ban that was put in place in 1997 by the Food and Drug Administration that prevents feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants. In addition, there's been ongoing surveillance for BSE in the cattle population in the U.S. That began in 1990 and really in earnest since June 1, 2004. USDA has sampled over 759,000 animals for BSE. These were largely high-risk animals. Only 2 tested positive for BSE under that surveillance program. Both animals were born prior to the feed ban being put in place in the U.S., and neither of those animals entered the food supply.

Then at slaughter plants of course we have a ban on nonambulatory disabled cattle being allowed for slaughter, and that at slaughter plants really the final strategy which as far as all of these interlocking strategies is really the key one as far as the risk assessment tells us, the control and removal of specified risk materials from entering the food supply. These would be things such as spinal cord and other materials that plants carefully look for and remove and inspection personnel ensure that they do not enter the food supply.

So that's the over-arching strategy for control of BSE in the United States.

Finally, OIG, the Office of Inspector General, has now opened a case in this matter and has taken the lead in the investigation; and FSIS and AMS, Agricultural Marketing Service, will be assisting them as necessary. OIG special agents have been assigned to the case and will examine pertinent information, gather evidence, and conduct interviews as necessary. If evidence of criminal conduct is found, the OIG will work with the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorneys Office to pursue the matter.

And with that, we'll turn it over to Mr. Sessions.

MR. BILL SESSIONS: Good afternoon. This is Bill Sessions with the Agricultural Marketing Service. As most of you may know, my agency is responsible for developing the contractual specification requirements for beef products purchased in federal Food and Nutrition Programs. We also administer the contracting activity. The action taken by USDA to suspend Westland Meat Company from producing and shipping products and receiving further contracts for federal Food and Nutrition programs remains in effect. The Agricultural Marketing Service is continuing to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

With that, I'll turn it over to my colleague, Eric Steiner.

MR. ERIC STEINER: This is Eric Steiner with the Food and Nutrition Service. USDA has extended the administrative hold on Hallmark/Westland Meat Company products for up to an additional 10 calendar days. The original hold will expire at midnight Saturday, February 9. The extended hold for up to an additional 10 days will expire at midnight Tuesday, February 19. With that, I turn it back to Corry.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you all, and we will go to questions now.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Jennifer Kelligher, you may ask your question, and please state your media name.

REPORTER: Agatha Jennifer Kelligher (sp) with Newsday in New York. Are there any states being told to stop serving Westland products in their schools?

MR. ERIC STEINER: At this time, USDA has asked all schools at this time to suspend the use of the Hallmark/Westland meat packing company products.

REPORTER: And how do schools know or how do people know if their schools are using Westland products, or have used Westland products?

MR. BILL SESSIONS: That information is given out through the electronic information distribution system by FNS, and I would assume that that information would then be transmitted down to local school districts who would in turn notify the participants in the School Lunch Program.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Janet Zimmerman. You may ask your question, and please state your media.

REPORTER: Yes. This is Janet Zimmerman with the Press Enterprise. There's been evidence that there were past violations of humane handling regulations before at this plant. Can I get Dr. Petersen to address that?

DR. PETERSEN: Sure. Well, we of course looked into the record of the plant which we do as part of any investigation. We'd look at what's been going on in the recent past. Back in December of 2005, I had, from time to time I schedule our own humane handling audit in these facilities. And that's done by a humane handling expert in each one of my 15 district offices. And that individual did a humane handling audit in December, and as a result of that, she found several things. We would not characterize them as egregious in nature, and so the appropriate action at that time was to put the plant on notice that they had some regulatory violations.

And in that particular case that's what we call a noncompliance record or an "NR." It's a written communication to the plant telling them what it is we found and really in that particular "NR" the key finding-there were several, but I think really one of the key ones was being overly aggressive on the use of electrical prods to move cattle. If the facility is correctly designed, generally cattle should be freely moving with minimal encouragement.

And so what the driver was doing was just over what we call "hotshotting" them, which is an electric prod, telling us a couple things: One, we would have some questions about their layout, their design, but also some questions about that individual's training.

And then the plant has some obligations to respond to our communication to them, which they did promptly; and with how they are going to correct that and prevent that from happening, you know, in the future.

Then we also had some facility concerns in that particular "NR", some, basically, maintenance housekeeping issues that they also addressed.

And then they tell us what they're going to do, they put it in place, and then we verify that it happens over time. So something two years ago that was, as I said, a nonegregious finding. Jumpstart to where we are now two years later, and we would consider that a substantial period of compliance, a two-year period. And in fact that's what they did.

And then we have the recent findings where again we call into question what they were doing. And what happened in this case is not inconsistent with what we have happen elsewhere, where we do what we call progressive enforcement.

We've given you some information before. Two years ago we had some concerns; now we have some other recent concerns. And so the sanction in this case, being a suspension of operations, is more severe.

So that's what happened then, and that's kind of how we followed up in concert with the other information that we have now.

REPORTER: And that violation, the noncompliance in 2005, was that all they had in their past? Because they are on the Quarterly Enforcement Report from late 2002.

DR. PETERSEN: Yes. Okay. Now in 2002, as other agency activities we had some activities related to E.coli 0157H7 food safety related issues, some strategies that we pushed out nationwide, telling plants what we expect for them to do as far as control of that pathogen. And we looked closely at virtually every plant associated that would have any relationship to E.coli. That was over 2,500 of them at the time. And they were put on notice for some questions we had regarding their food safety system at that time.

They were one of many who had similar questions. That was related to some recalls in other events we had associated with E.coli in the summer of 2002. So that's really distinct from this. Again, that would be, in our view, from an enforcement perspective, 2002 would be quite a while ago.

And then we look at, was there a substantial period of compliance? And certainly on the E.coli front, as I think we suggested a little bit last week, their recent history from both FSIS testing and really from AMS testing, whether it be E.coli or Salmonella, they did have a substantial positive track record as far as effective control for pathogens associated with the food safety system.

REPORTER: Are you saying that they did test positive for E.coli in 2002?

MODERATOR: Excuse me. We need to go on to the next question. We have quite a few in line waiting, so let's go on to the next one.

OPERATOR: Our next one comes from Bill Tomson. You may ask your question.

REPORTER: Hi. This is Bill Tomson with Dow Jones. I suppose this question is for Dr. Petersen. But what would be the purpose of the inhumane handling of the cattle? In other words, is there any possible other purpose for forcing a fallen cow to their feet other than, say, bypassing the downer prohibition? I mean is there absolutely anything that could be the reason behind this except for that?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, I can't, you know, muse on people's thinking other than to say it's not necessary in a plant that operates effectively, and it's certainly not appropriate. And so perhaps they have some animals that they thought they could get up to move. That's not the appropriate way to do that. So I can't speculate on kind of what their thought process was. They should have procedures in place that positions them so that that's not necessary.

MODERATOR: Before we go to the next question though, Eric Steiner wanted to follow up on one of the earlier questions. Eric?

MR. ERIC STEINER: Thank you, Corry. As Mr. Sessions correctly noted before, the Food Nutrition Service notifies the states, who then in turn notify schools and other recipient agencies regarding the Westland Meat Company products. When our first advisory went out, we let our state agencies and schools know that they can identify the products that originate from this company by either the company name or their establishment number. And those are either/or or both are both on the products. And that's how those products can be identified.

MODERATOR: Thanks. So we can go to the next question. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rick Weiss. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Hi. Thank you. Rick Weiss, Washington Post. With regard to the substantial period of compliance after the 2005 humane handling violations, when you say there was a substantial period of compliance, were there any audits or inspections looking at this between then and now? Or is it just that this is the first thing that's come up since then?

DR. PETERSEN: Okay. Yes. There were both audits and inspections. As we mentioned last week, we have ongoing daily activities where we verify that various humane handling procedures are being adhered to, which my in-plant inspectors do as I said every day. In this plant we were documenting that roughly an hour, really more like an hour and a half every day. Moving cattle, effective stunning of cattle, you know water in the pens, that's the kind of thing they look for. Then in May of 2007 this past year, we had another random audit, really actually by the same individual who did the one in December of 2005. And her findings at that time were unremarkable.

The facility concerns we had, had been significantly corrected, and she observed none of the similar behavior as far as overuse of electric prodding of cattle and that kind of thing.

So that report was on balance, acceptable.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jeanine Otto. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Thank you. This is Jeanine Otto from Illinois AgriNews. Dr. Petersen, in the last teleconference there was some question about why HSUS went first to local police authorities, as they're claiming they did, and waited so long to get this video into the hands of the USDA. Have they been any more forthcoming about what that gap in time was or why they went first to local authorities instead of coming directly to the USDA?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, I haven't, you know, personally queried them on it. You know, I think we expressed our view on that last week. And now that we have the information we've kind of moved forward. Perhaps that's a question you might offer up to them.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Joe Ascenzi. You may ask your question and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Yes. Joe Ascenzi with the Business Press, San Reno, California. What are the maximum penalties they might be looking at, and how long is this likely to take to resolve?

DR. PETERSEN: They are currently subject to a rather significant penalty, which is the inability to operate, and so it's up to them as far as when they want to put forward a response to the issues that we put before them. No doubt they are carefully considering what we've outlined. And what the typical process is: They identify the issues, they tell us how they are corrected, and then usually there's some back and forth discussion that may take a few days. And again, it kind of depends on the credibility of what they put forward and the likelihood that they think they will have for success, not just immediately, but success on an ongoing basis.

And so we're going to be looking rather carefully for that.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Erica Warner. You may ask your question. Please state your company name.

REPORTER: This is Erica Warner with the Associated Press. A couple questions: One is that the company has said that only two employees broke the rules, and both have been fired. I'm wondering if the company has formally presented that action or that conclusion to USDA, and is that part of their plan? Or have you all responded to that or considered that in any way?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, they have not formally responded. And so I can't really speculate. If it's their position that it's only two people, I would want to understand how they came to that conclusion, because any facility has both employees and supervisors and a program that's supposed to be understood by all and implemented by all.

And so I haven't seen that, that that's their position. So I couldn't speculate that that's their conclusion.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Victoria Kim. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Hello. This is Victoria Kim with the LA Times. I have two questions. One, I wanted to ask whether you were looking at all into how these activities went undetected by the USDA inspectors, and if you're looking into that at all in your investigation. And second, if you're looking into whether this kind of action is also at other slaughterhouses in the country. Thanks.

DR. PETERSEN: Okay. Well, how it went undetected is certainly going to be part of the investigation. And as I think we very briefly touched on last week, that kind of information, if it comes to light, I would expect would come to light through the interview process: Interviewing various folks and then reconciling statements, as you would expect in any investigation.

So yes, we are interested: When did it occur? Did they have knowledge of perhaps when my inspectors would be around? Obviously that's something we'd be interested in. As I said, I know the inspectors were coming and going at random times, so how is it that if this was occurring on an ongoing basis they were not aware of it? So that's certainly part of the investigation.

Then your second question was? Oh, yeah. Again, I have, the second question: Is this happening elsewhere? The preponderance of plants in the U.S., of which plants that slaughter cattle - there's at least 600 of them in the federal system - have effective programs. They track them on an ongoing basis, they take corrective action should anything become awry, and they make corrections over time. And so that's really the norm. And I have inspectors in every single one of those plants that are quite attentive to any of that kind of activity going on.

So no, I don't believe that this is evidence of something that's pervasive. I think it's more symptomatic of a localized problem. Now that said, obviously we, as with any investigation, want to learn things that we perhaps can do better. And we've already got some ideas on how we want to revise some of our procedures, frequency of procedures, data tracking kind of inside baseball like that. But as the investigation facts kind of come to light, we'll be going out with that kind of information to the workforce to make sure any lessons learned here are aware of for everybody.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Carmen Corsi. Ask your question and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Yes. My name is Carmen Corsi. And I'm a reporter with WSPA; that's the CBS affiliate in the Greenville Spartanburg market of South Carolina. I was just calling, and this alludes to the first question that was asked again. I know that Mr. Steiner said that these agencies will notify the different states, which will notify the schools, and then they are in charge of notifying the people in that area. But I was wondering if there was any sort of list that we could access that had it broken down of which states were immediately affected by this, where that meat went, so we can ensure that people are coming forward and saying, "Hey, we have some of this meat but we have pulled it."

MR. ERIC STEINER: At this point, all of our states have been notified that they need to suspend using for the time being all meat products derived from the company. That's all 50 states, District of Columbia, and that's everybody. I mean some of the products are given through the different programs, including the National School Lunch Program, as mentioned before on last week's call; also the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations.

So everyone has been contacted, and everyone should be diligent in suspending the use of these products.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robert Wilson. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Robert Wilson with KSFY Television. We're the ABC affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You said off the top that you had found no evidence that downer cattle had entered the food supply. Can you say you're confident that that did not happen, or is that still a part of your ongoing investigation?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, I mean when we brought up this subject last week, of course we had that before us with really no information either way. In the last week I've obviously looked at a lot of information that's available to us and information from at least some of the initial interviews as well as records that I generate in the plant through our inspection activity, records of activities we do on ante mortem, condemnations that we may do for nonambulatory animals.

And so I think the statement is what I said to date, and I have better information than I did last week. But I'm always looking for complete information to the extent I can get it. So I have better information today. I have no evidence that any nonambulatory animals enter the food supply. That's better information than I had last week. But I still have additional investigation that I'm going to do to make sure that every rock we can look under is looked under before we can be in a position to make a final statement.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steven Quevas (sp). Please ask your question and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Hi. Steven Quivas from KPCC in Los Angeles, a National Public Radio affiliate. Dr. Petersen, we know what the Humane Society say they saw, but what specific deficiencies has the USDA identified in its current investigation? And also what parts of the Humane Society investigation can you confirm as being accurate?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, part of what we were looking at over the last week was, you know, I had some, obviously, some video; and so how factual can I make that video? Then we had some statements from the plant basically acknowledging at least at some level that some of their employees were engaged in the behaviors that they observed on the tape. So those two things go together.

Then when I'm in the plant and I look at their layout: Kind of where some of these things may have occurred, that helps me put more context to what I saw in the video.

Then when we look at their program, things such as: Well what did they say they were going to do as far as receiving animals, moving animals throughout the facility? Did they have the right equipment to move injured animals around the facility? What we saw in the tape certainly suggests not.

So, much of what I just said I then translate into the regulatory context. And, we have regulatory prohibitions against things such as dragging live animals. That's not acceptable. We have regulatory provisions against overstunning aggressively driving animals. That's not acceptable.

And so we put some context to what we saw in the video, and then we split that into a regulatory context, and that was really the basis for the suspension.

I would say, kind of circling back to one of the earlier calls and this is kind of on the same theme: The suspension of the plant is an administrative action that certainly we have the authority to execute. That is separate and apart from what an OIG is and will be doing. And so I've taken the action I think is appropriate, which is obviously suspending operations. OIG has opened their case. They are going to certainly continue their investigation and work with all the appropriate parties. Anything addition they may work on or find on is going to be for them to determine.

The suspension is something that FSIS took under our existing regulatory rules.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Steve Kay. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Steve Kay, Cattle Buyers Weekly. Dr. Petersen, have investigators interviewed the two dismissed employees and their supervisor? And my second question is, what kind of details are FSIS and USDA looking for in the company's plans for corrective action?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, the first question, you know, who's been interviewed is obviously part of the investigation, so I wouldn't be in a position to comment on that. Details-that is for the plant to tell me. I have some kind of general view of having had knowledge of other plants and programs that we have found acceptable and of things that might be acceptable. But it's for them first to figure out what happened, why did it happen, how was it allowed to happen over at least some period of time, and then what does that tell us about our program that we need to fix?

And obviously simply firing employees is not going to be - it may be part of the story, but I'm certain they will come forward with more than just that. And I would expect it to be comprehensive, meaning on the training side, the ongoing supervision side, practices as far as moving animals around the facility, ongoing correlation with people - perhaps ongoing surveillance of what occurs in their pens. So that kind of overarching, comprehensive way to address those various regulatory concerns I suggested earlier is certainly the kind of thing we're going to be looking for.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Lisa Keefe. You may ask your question, and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Yes, hi. This is Lisa Keefe with Meeting Place Magazine in Chicago. As I understand it, the company even as it's not operating is going through extensive, doing a lot of extensive work at the facility, presumably to plan for ongoing operations in the future including perhaps the installation of video cameras at locations to enhance the surveillance of the employees and such. Do you have any knowledge of any of these actions? Can you comment on them at all?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, some knowledge. Obviously there's been a lot of other activity at the plant as I'm told. You know, this kind of circles back to the earlier question. It's not for me to tell them what I want because they will likely give me what I want. I want them to figure out what happened and something that they can implement, something that they can embrace and something that they can track over time. And so if video camera is something they're considering or something they're putting in place, I haven't been officially notified of that, so to me it would just be an interesting fact.

I think, likely if anything, I would guess they're trying to position themselves to tell me what they have done. Generally if somebody tells me what they're going to do, that's going to be a little less satisfactory than somebody to tell me, "Here's what I've done, and you don't have to wait for me to do something down the road." So it's conjecture, but perhaps that's what they're trying to strive for.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Erica Warner. You may ask your question and please state your company name.

REPORTER: Oh, hi. This is Erica Warner with AP. On the question of the suspension of use of the product from Westland, just to be clear, are these products going to be destroyed or is there a point in time when you determined for sure that no downer cattle entered the food supply, that they would be allowed to take these products out of the freezer and serve them up again?

MR. BILL SESSIONS: The products are going to remain on hold until such time as we have information from the investigative process where we can make an appropriate decision, and at that time when we have the facts in hand we will then make a timely and appropriate decision relative to the disposition of these products.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Kim Piersol (sp). You may ask your question. Please state your company name.

REPORTER: Hi. Kim with the Riverside Press Enterprise. I had a quick question, just trying to clearly understand what the investigative process is involving the agencies. FSIS suspended operations. What's the next step for FSIS? And does the entire investigation now go to OIG?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, the plant, as we've mentioned on this call, needs to decide if and when they want to respond to the suspension. And so we simply wait for that. I'm on no timeline. It's their timeline.

Anything that OIG is doing - decisions I'll make down the road regarding their suspension. You never say never. But the suspension is really on a separate track that's an administrative enforcement action. As I said on the last call, we did about 12 humane handling suspensions last year. So it's not common, but it's not as low as we want to see it.

Then OIG does have the lead, and we'll pursue other information no doubt in concert with a variety of parties to pursue other information. And I'm really not in a position to speak to what they're going to be interested in.

So, (about) the suspension: If the plant wants to respond, I'll assess the response, and then we'll make a decision on whether they could operate based on the facts we put before them in the letter of suspension. OIG will continue to pursue any additional activities that they are doing.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tanya Allen. You may ask your question. One moment, please. We'll go on to the next.

REPORTER: Hi. Rick Weiss, Washington Post. Again, to try to clarify in the OIG aspect of the investigation, I know you can't say much about it, but can you make clear for us whether within the purview of that investigation is an investigation into whether the USDA inspector who was doing the daily inspections there was fulfilling his duties appropriately?

DR. PETERSEN: I just can't speculate on what OIG is going to be looking at.

REPORTER: Have you looked at that yourself and come to a conclusion yet?

DR. PETERSEN: Even if I had I wouldn't be in a position to articulate what it is we found or didn't find regarding inspection personnel.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tanya Allen. You may ask your question and please give your company name.

REPORTER: This is Tanya Allen with AMIS Newsletter. First, there appear to be some provisions for cost reimbursement for those in the commodity chain. But it's unclear to me how these work. I guess my question is, what are USDA's plans for covering costs incurred by schools, distributors, manufacturers, etcetera, during this hold?

MR. BILL SESSIONS: To answer your question, we do have specific hold and recall procedures that we will follow in this matter. Not to say exactly what we will reimburse and won't reimburse and that sort of thing; it would be speculative on my part. We really need the facts, and as soon as we have the facts, either through the investigative process, again we'll take the appropriate action at that time.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Victoria Kim. You may ask your question.

REPORTER: Just following up on the question on whether you're looking at the inspectors. I'm confused - so you will never give us the conclusion you've reached on the USDA inspector's part? And why is that? And I was also wondering if it is indeed found that these inspectors were aware of the process and did not do anything about it, what are possible actions that will be taken?

DR. PETERSEN: Well, just broadly, not in this case but of course anything that occurs, of course not just in this agency but anywhere, we look at our employees. And, did they have the right information? And if they did, were they taking the appropriate action?

And so I do investigations all the time looking into employee conduct. And I think we kind of touched on this last week; we put in place last week an aggressive, multifaceted investigation. And anybody who knows, certainly, me, knows that I'm interested in all the facts. And when we get the facts, we take the appropriate action or we don't take an appropriate action, based on the facts. And so we're interested in knowing everything about everything. And certainly FSIS and AMS and FNS have their piece of it, and OIG has started to focus on their piece of it.

So I can never say never what we may share down the road, but today we're still in the middle of some of this. And so I'm not in a position to tell you any actions we are taking or contemplating or haven't taken.

MODERATOR: Thank you. At this time unfortunately, that's going to have to have been the last question. But thank you for joining, and call us at USDA Office of Communications if you have any further questions. And that number is 202-720-4623. Thank you.