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Subject: TRANSCRIPT: USDA Officials Hold Technical Briefing Regarding Inhumane Handling Allegations
Date: February 4, 2008 at 12:25 pm PST
Release No. 0028.08
Office of Communications (202) 720-4623
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TRANSCRIPT: USDA Officials Hold Technical Briefing Regarding Inhumane
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
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
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
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
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
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
So with that, I will turn it back to our moderator.
MODERATOR: Sure. Next we will go to Bill Sessions of the Agricultural
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Bill Tomson. Please state your
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
Have you gotten any type of concerns, queries, anything from our foreign
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,
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
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
Again, I'm going to investigate all the facts and make sure that that
REPORTER: Thanks. Appreciate it.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Andy Dworkin. Please state your
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
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
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.
> TRANSCRIPT: USDA Officials Hold Technical Briefing Regarding Inhumane
> Handling Allegations
THE title is very misleading. A better title in my opinion would have read ;
HIGHLY SUSPECT BSE, H-BASE, MAD COW BEEF DISTRIBUTED NATIONALLY (35 states
to date), to CHILDREN AND THE ELDERLY
USDA CERTIFIED H-BASE MAD COW SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM
It's the American way $$$