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    Gov. Report IDs Failures at Hallmark Meat Plant, But No Evidence of Systemic Failure

    Federal investigators probing the plant, caught slaughtering downer cows, said the company took "deliberate actions" to evade inspections.

    Following an investigation into undercover footage filmed at Southern California's Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in early 2008 showing workers at the plant abusing and prodding cattle prior to slaughter., the Agriculture Department's inspector general concluded that while significant failures occurred among the plant's management and inspectors, better management controls are necessary to prevent similar incidents in the future.

    "We determined that there were deliberate actions by Hallmark personnel to bypass required inspections, as well as noncompliance with required inspection procedures by Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in-plant staff," according to a report issued by the USDA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

    Undercover video taken at the plant by a Humane Society of the United States revealed abuse of downed cattle, which prompted a firestorm of outrage from animal rights and consumer groups.

    In a broader investigation of procedures at 10 similar cull cow plants, the report noted "the events at Hallmark were not a systemic failure of the inspection processes/system as designed by" USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), although OIG said that there may be an "inherent vulnerability" in the system because FSIS does not provide continuous surveillance of all operating areas at all times.

    In addition, OIG expressed concern that FSIS cannot demonstrate that the resources assigned to its offline inspection activities are sufficient to adequately perform the tasks assigned.  OIG also said that FSIS does not have a system to ensure that its inspection and supervisory staff receive both the formal and on-the-job training they need to do their jobs effectively.

    OIG recommended that FSIS analyze the unique handling risks that may be associated with cull slaughter establishments due to the advanced age of the animals those plants handle and determine whether District Veterinary Medical Specialist (DVMS) reviews should be conducted more frequently at these establishments.

    In a response, FSIS said it will complete an analysis by August 2009 that may result in more frequent humane handling verification visits to cull cow plants.

    The report also recommended that FSIS develop a process to analyze Performance Based Inspection System data for anomalies or variances in slaughter establishments and inspector performances that could require additional follow-up by district management.

    In turn, FSIS said it will create a quarterly humane handling alert based upon a review of establishment noncompliance data. The process will be established in January 2009 and the first alert will be distributed in March 2009.

    In responding to a recommendation that FSIS consider agency controlled in-plant video monitoring, FSIS told OIG that it currently has access to establishments' video records under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. The agency committed to clarifying agency personnel's access to video records in a directive that will be issued by March 2009.  The agency will also issue to industry Compliance Guidelines for Using Video Records to ensure that these records are "trustworthy, accurate and a true representation of the process."

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