By DAISY NGUYEN Associated Press Writer
May 1, 2009
The federal government said Friday it is suing a Southern California slaughterhouse whose workers were caught on videotape abusing cattle, leading to the nation's biggest beef recall last year.
The Department of Justice is intervening in the Humane Society of the United States' lawsuit against Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. The federal lawsuit seeks $150 million in taxpayer money awarded to the company during a five-year period.
The lawsuit claims the slaughterhouse, at one time the second largest supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, fraudulently claimed that all cattle slaughtered at the plant were handled humanely and that no meat from so-called "downer" cows entered the food supply.
However, undercover video released by the Humane Society showed workers dragging cows too sick or injured to stand with chains, shocking them with electric prods and shooting streams of water in their faces. The video led to the February 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of beef out of fear downer cattle, which pose a greater risk of illnesses such as mad cow disease, entered the food supply.
The Humane Society filed the lawsuit the same month of the recall. By law, the lawsuit was kept under seal until this week when the government, which conducted its own investigation, intervened.
"The alleged misrepresentations by Hallmark and Westland could have impacted the health of many of our nation's most vulnerable citizens — our schoolchildren," said Tony West, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil division. "Our intervention in this case demonstrates how seriously we will pursue allegations such as these."
The slaughterhouse closed after the recall. The company's phone line was disconnected and an e-mail message to company president Steve Mendell was not immediately returned Friday night.
The lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to file a lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government to recover damages and civil penalties.The government plans to file an amended lawsuit in the case.
"We commend the U.S. Department of Justice for joining (us) in seeking to hold federal meat suppliers accountable when they failed to provide humane treatment of animals in accordance with federal law," said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for the Humane Society.