A Southern California meatpacking plant that supplied beef to the nation's school lunch program slaughtered stumbling, potentially contaminated cows for four years before undercover video of animal abuse prompted a massive beef recall, federal court filings say.
The amended complaint filed late last month in U.S. District Court in Riverside is part of an ongoing civil lawsuit filed by The Humane Society of the United States against the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.
The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case with the new complaint after months of additional research and interviews that uncovered the startling new allegations against the now-defunct packing plant. Among them, the company failed to disclose that one of its partners had two felony convictions related to illegal industry practices.
The Humane Society released video in late 2007 showing "downer" cows — animals too weak or sick to walk — being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high-pressure water by plant employees who wanted them to stand for processing.
The video sparked the largest beef recall in U.S. history. Officials estimated at the time that 37 million pounds of the 143 million pounds of recalled beef went to school lunch programs, and most of the meat had already been eaten.
Donald W. Hallmark, whom the lawsuit lists as a company partner, told The Associated Press he retired six years ago and had no comment. Calls to a number for another partner, Steve Mendell, rang unanswered Thursday.
The new filing alleges the government paid Westland/Hallmark millions of dollars to which it was not entitled because the company lied about meeting all the conditions for the 140 government contracts it held between 2003 and 2008.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a jury trial. The original filing by the Humane Society sought $150 million.
In the papers, the government alleges the meatpacking plant slaughtered and processed downer cows for nearly four years — from January 2004 to September 2007 — at the average rate of one every six weeks and abused animals daily using chains, forklifts, high-pressure water hoses or electric prods, or by punching and kicking them.
Downer cows pose increased risk for mad cow disease, E. coli and other infections, partly because they typically wallow in feces.
The new complaint also alleges that a partner at Westland/Hallmark, Aaron Magidow, had two felony convictions that were not reported to the government when it awarded the meatpacker's contracts. Magidow, who has since died, was convicted in 1974 of bribing federal meat inspectors and in 1983 for participating in a fraudulent meat buying scheme, the lawsuit said.
The executor of Magidow's estate, which is named as a defendant in the case, said he had no comment.
"I think whatever we have to say will be said in court," said attorney Walter Weiss.
Officials with the Humane Society said the government's filing marked the first time the Justice Department had intervened in a federal false claims case involving the mistreatment of farm animals.
The lawsuit "not only confirms everything that our investigation found, but suggests that it was even more widespread than we had documented," said Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's chief counsel. "We're concerned by what they uncovered — but not surprised."
San Bernardino County prosecutors charged two of the employees seen on the undercover video. One was sentenced to six months in jail, the other to nine months in jail.