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Questions and Answers
 
  USDA QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS REGARDING THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES' HANDLING ALLEGATIONS
  February 6, 2008
 

Q. Should parents be concerned?

A. USDA is confident in the inspection system which ensures the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply.

USDA placed an administrative hold on all Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company meat products that are in, or destined for Federal food and nutrition programs, specifically the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

An important point needs the public's attention: USDA placed an administrative hold on all Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company products because of potential violations of regulatory requirements and contractual terms as a supplier of products to the Federal food and nutrition programs.

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) purchases of meat and meat products for Federal food and nutrition programs must come from livestock that are humanely handled and harvested in accordance with all applicable Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulations and the Humane Slaughter Act.

In addition to this requirement, AMS has longstanding contract requirements that preclude the use of meat and meat products derived from non-ambulatory disabled livestock, even if the animal initially passed ante-mortem inspection and went down due to a localized injury.

AMS purchases a number of beef items, including bulk ground beef, ground beef in 1 lb. packages, coarse ground beef, ground beef patties, beef patties with soy protein product, and 90 percent lean beef ground beef patties.

AMS has every production lot of ground beef tested by independent laboratories for certain pathogens and indicator organisms. Those lots that have positive findings of E. coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella are prohibited from Federal food and nutrition programs and FSIS is notified.

Q. How much meat is on USDA's administrative hold?

A. The amount of product that is on hold is part of the data that we're verifying as part of USDA's on-going investigation.

Q. Will the administrative hold lead to a shortage of beef in any areas of the country?

A. It is important to stress that the product is on administrative hold because of potential violations of regulatory requirements and contractual terms required of suppliers to Federal food and nutrition programs.

As part of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) standard operating procedures, when there is a concern about potential violations of regulatory requirements or contractual terms, FNS, in concert with food regulatory agencies (FDA and FSIS), will ask its cooperators at the State and local level, to hold the product for a minimum of 10 days. During that time, USDA works on any final actions that include a) that the food can later be used in the programs; b) that the food needs to be destroyed; or c) if that food needs to held for a longer time as the final determinations are made.

Q. Some people have concluded that the school lunch program is getting low-quality beef when they heard about the incident at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company Meat. Is that true? How do the standards -- e.g. fat content, grade -- for hamburger, purchased in the school lunch program compare to hamburger purchased in a grocery store?

A. USDA maintains very high quality standards for its beef purchases. Those are published and available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/lscp/beef/beefindex.htm.

The meat products supplied to Federal food and nutrition programs are of the same quality as those products available to consumers in their local supermarket.

Much like the ground beef available at retail, USDA's ground beef is 85 percent lean, with products lower in fat content also available. Like many large volume buyers, USDA requires its beef purchases meet a number of other contract requirements including every production lot being tested by independent laboratories for certain pathogens and indicator organisms. Any product that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella is prohibited from Federal food and nutrition programs.

USDA awards its beef purchase contracts through a competitive bid system to vendors all over the country.

Q. How much beef and chicken are school districts getting through the commodity program, and how does that compare to prior years? Is the trend for each up, down, level? And are schools getting more fruits and vegetables through the program than they have in the past?

A. Only about 20 percent of the food served at the school level actually comes from the Department's commodity purchase program. States and schools tend to leverage their purchasing power by ordering from USDA certain commodities, such as coarse ground beef and bulk chicken, that provide the greatest volume savings. So, examining USDA purchase data does not provide useful insight into the product mix actually served to children at the school level.

Over the past 3 years, the largest share of purchases was for fruit and vegetables, followed by beef products, and then chicken products.

Purchases (in millions) for Child Nutrition Programs Commodity

Product

FY 2005 FY 2006 FY 2007

(Preliminary Data)

Beef Products $189 $247 $244

Chicken Products $130 $140 $160

Fruits & Vegetables $230 $288 $239

USDA has provided between $180 and $230 million of canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables for schools annually over the last three years. In addition, USDA provides $50 million in fresh fruits and vegetables through a partnership with the Department of Defense's Supply Center in Philadelphia. Over 60 types of fresh fruits and vegetables are made available through this partnership

Q. Why didn't FSIS suspend the establishment upon learning of the allegations?

A. On Jan. 30, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer called upon the Office of the Inspector General to work with USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and Agricultural Marketing Service to investigate the allegations of inhumane handling of cattle at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. The focus of the investigation is to determine the facts as presented by the allegations made in the video. On Feb. 1, the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company voluntarily ceased operations pending the investigation.

FSIS follows regulatory rules of practice prior to taking an enforcement action such as a suspension of inspection. These rules of practice require that FSIS factually confirm the allegations before suspending inspection. The letter notifying the establishment of the suspension also informs the establishment of its due process rights.

On Feb. 4, FSIS issued a Notice of Suspension based on Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company's failure to maintain and implement controls to prevent the inhumane handling and slaughter of animals at the facility which are required by FSIS regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Issuing a Notice of Suspension is a normal course of action when FSIS finds egregious violations of humane handling regulations. The suspension will remain in effect and the plant will be unable to operate until written corrective actions are submitted and verified by FSIS to ensure that animals are handled and slaughtered humanely.

Q. When can the plant resume operations?

A. The suspension will remain in effect and the plant will be unable to operate until written corrective actions are submitted and verified by FSIS to ensure that animals are handled and slaughtered humanely.

Q. Will USDA be able to determine during its investigation if downer cattle did enter the food supply?

A. To date, there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations that downer cattle entered the food supply.

On Jan. 30, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer called upon the Office of the Inspector General to work with FSIS and the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to conduct an investigation into allegations of inhumane handling of non-ambulatory disabled cattle at Westland Meat Packing Company.

Q. What is a non-ambulatory, "downer," animal and how are they handled?

A. Non-ambulatory disabled livestock are livestock that cannot rise from a recumbent position or that cannot walk, including, but not limited to, those with broken appendages, severed tendons or ligaments, nerve paralysis, fractured vertebral column, or metabolic conditions.

Once an animal that is ambulatory has passed ante-mortem inspection and then becomes non-ambulatory disabled, for example with evidence of an acute fracture, such an animal must be re-examined by the Public Health Veterinarian to determine whether the animal can proceed to slaughter.

Ambulatory livestock with a broken leg should be driven as little as possible to prevent inhumane handling during ante-mortem inspection. If the animal is passed for slaughter, it should be handled as humanely as possible while moving to the stunning area. In some cases, it might be appropriate for the establishment to stun the animal in the pen area to minimize discomfort, rather than forcing it to walk to the stunning area.

Q. Are downer cattle allowed to enter the food supply?

A. On July 13, 2007 FSIS issued the final rule "Prohibition of the Use of Specified Risk Materials for Human Food and Requirements for the Disposition of Non-Ambulatory Disabled Cattle."

The prohibition of downer cattle from entering the food supply is only one measure in an interlocking system of controls the federal government has in place to protect the food supply.

Other BSE measures include the feed ban that prohibits feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants, an ongoing BSE surveillance program and the required removal of specified risk materials.

Q. Are electric prods or other devices eligible for use on live animals?

A. Electric prodding devices are common handling tools and are humane when properly used. Electric prodding devices should be used minimally and in a humane manner on ambulatory animals.

The Agency considers it unacceptable and inhumane to prod a non-ambulatory animal in any manner.

Mechanical means, such as by forklift, to elevate an animal is not considered humane.

FSIS can take immediate regulatory action and suspend inspection if inspection program personnel observe egregious violations of humane handling , thereby prohibiting the establishment from operating until they correct the problem.

Q. Has USDA increased its inspection procedures at other facilities since these allegations?

A. No. There are 7,800 inspection personnel that provide inspection to more than 6,200 federally inspected establishments. USDA has continuous presence at all federally inspected slaughter facilities. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for assuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome, correctly labeled and packaged. FSIS is also responsible for ensuring that establishments follow all food safety and humane handling regulations.