In October 2007, John Wrangler, not his real name, took a job as a livestock handler at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., for a salary of $8 an hour. Working from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, Wrangler herded cattle, many of them milked-out dairy cows, off trucks, and hustled them from pens towards the "kill box" to be slaughtered. All in all, he helped the plant turn about 500 cows per day into meat, with much of the beef going to supply the National School Lunch Program.
In the course of the six weeks that Wrangler worked at the Southern California slaughterhouse, he witnessed extreme acts of animal cruelty and gross violations of federal food safety standards. On his first day on the job, he watched a skinny and weak cow collapse while going up the narrow chute that leads to the kill box where animals' throats are cut. A worker pulled the animal's tail, hoping to get it to stand up. When that failed, the worker applied a "hot shot" cattle prod to jolt the cow to its feet. When the cow still didn't stand, another worker jumped into the chute and shot the cow in the head with a captive bolt gun, designed to stun the animal into unconsciousness. With the cow lying in the chute out cold, the worker put a chain around its neck and attached it to a mechanical hoist, which dragged the unconscious animal to the kill box to be slaughtered and processed into meat.
Wrangler isn't an ordinary slaughterhouse worker. He is an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, who got a job at the Westland plant and filmed the abuses with a hidden camera. "There wasn't a formal strategy or anything like that," he says. "You're there just doing the job, and this stuff is just happening all around you." On Jan. 30, the Humane Society broadcast excerpts of the video on its Web site. The next day, the United Stated Department of Agriculture suspended Westland Meat Co. as a supplier to the National School Lunch Program. A few days later, USDA pulled its inspectors from the plant and shut down the plant, pending further investigation. The acts of animal cruelty have led to the arrest of two meatpacking workers by Chino police.
More than two weeks after Wrangler's video caused a sensation online, the USDA issued the largest beef recall in the history of the United States: 143 million pounds of beef products, most of which has already been consumed. About 40 percent of that meat went to the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs. Amazingly, all of the abuses occurred with USDA inspectors on the premises. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said he was "dismayed at the inhumane handling of cattle" at the plant.
Because anemic animals are often the most diseased -- their meat may be contaminated with E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease -- federal regulations hold that a cow should be able to walk to its own slaughter. If a cow goes down, a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service veterinarian must be immediately notified and the animal must be examined to determine if it should be euthanized. Coercing lame animals to slaughter and into the human food supply is in clear violation of the USDA rule. Yet that is exactly what the Westland was doing, Wrangler says.
In industry parlance, a cow too sick or weak to get to its feet and walk to its slaughter is a "downer." Wrangler, who guards his real name to protect his anonymity, says some trucks delivering old dairy cows for slaughter would arrive with feeble animals lying on top of each other in the back of the truck. "A lot of the animals weren't able to get up on their own," Wrangler recalls. "They're too sick or too old for whatever reason. You go and tell the manager, 'Hey, we've got three down on the back of the truck, what are we doing to do?' And his response always was, 'Get 'em up.' That was his mantra."
Despite the USDA rule, Wrangler says, the mind-set at the plant was, "'We're not going to lose this cow.' They're not going to get the inspector." Workers, including the pen manager himself, would go to extremes: kicking, beating, pulling the animals' tails, shocking them, jabbing them in the eyes, dragging them with chains. "The thought was if you cause enough pain, they'll stand up," says Wrangler. "If that didn't work, he [the pen manager] would use a forklift to dump them into the next pen or into the alleyway that leads up to the slaughter chute." Wrangler even witnessed a bovine version of waterboarding, involving "spraying water down their throat to try to get them to stand up."
Since the scandal broke, industry groups, such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, have sought to assure the public the problems were an isolated incident. "This recall is happening out of an abundance of caution because the company did not follow regulations for handling non-ambulatory cattle," James O. Reagan, chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, said in a statement. "We support USDA's recall as a precautionary measure. At the same time, we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe."
But Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, has his doubts. The Humane Society, he attests, had not been tipped off to abuses at the plant. "This plant was selected at random," he says. "There are 6,200 facilities across the country that USDA inspects. We chose this one and found egregious abuses. There is no way that these groups can say that everything is safe."
The shocking videos of the animals abused at the plant, and the fact that millions of pounds of their meat has already made it into the federal school lunch program, which feeds more than 30 million children per day, has provoked outrage and demands for USDA reforms. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for an investigation of the Westland plant for violations of food safety laws and animal cruelty standards. Boxer and Feinstein are also co-sponsors of legislation, introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, that would require downer cattle to be euthanized.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, announced that Congress will hold hearings about the scandal next month. "It's alarming that the problem was not discovered by USDA itself," she says. "We need to ensure that the school lunch program does not become the industry's dumping ground for bad meat." The House's General Accountability Office also opened an investigation. The United States Humane Society is calling for greater oversight of the animals at slaughterhouses by the USDA, as well as a legislative ban on downer cows being sold as meat.
For his part, Wrangler is glad that his six weeks in meat packing have had such an impact. "A month ago, no one was thinking about the fact that dairy cows went to slaughter, or the fact that a place would purposely buy the cheapest, skinniest animals they could get to make a profit supplying this government program."