FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A California slaughterhouse under federal investigation for animal cruelty and possible health issues sold 21 million pounds of beef to the federal government in 2011 for use in school and other nutritional programs, records show.
Federal officials said nothing they have seen so far on undercover video shot at the facility shows meat from cows that may have been sick or lame made it into the food supply, but interviews with employees were ongoing.
Records show the government made five large-scale purchases of ground and chunk beef from the company in 2011, spending more than $50 million of the total $135 allocated by the government for such acquisitions that year.
USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said he did not know to which government food programs the beef was provided. The meat generally goes to the national school lunch program and food distribution on Indian reservations, and is available for discount purchases by community food banks.
"I know that 21 million alone did not go to school meals, but I'm going to keep working on getting information," DeJong said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture acted quickly to shut down Central Valley Meat Co. of Hanford on Monday after the video shot by an animal welfare group documented questionable treatment of dairy cows bound for slaughter.
The video was shot by an operative of Compassion Over Killing who was hired by the slaughterhouse. The group has given a written statement to USDA investigators.
"We believe our video raised red flags for sure, but it's up to the USDA to decide," said Erica Meier, executive director of the animal welfare organization.
Federal regulators said they were investigating whether beef from sick cows reached the human food supply.
The video appears to show workers bungling the slaughter of cows struggling to walk and even stand. Clips show workers kicking and shocking cows to get them to stand and walk to slaughter.
Under federal regulations, sick animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption.
The video prompted the National Cattlemen's Beef Association to issue a statement.
"We firmly believe that those knowingly and willfully committing any abuse to animals should not be in the business — period," Dave Daley, a professor at California State University, Chico, said in the statement released by the marketing group. "The actions depicted in these videos are disgraceful and not representative of the cattle community."
Central Valley Meat Co. has referred all questions to a public relations firm that issued a statement saying Central Valley Meat is cooperating with investigators and developing a plan to remedy any potential violations of USDA guidelines.
"Based on our own investigation and 30 years of producing safe, high-quality US beef, we are confident these concerns pose no food safety issues," the statement said.
The video shows one man standing on the muzzle of a downed cow. Other footage depicts cows struggling after being repeatedly shot in the head with a pneumatic gun.
Federal regulations say slaughterhouses must be successful with a single shot.
Other clips show cattle with udders so swollen they are unable to keep their legs under them to walk, and workers trying to lift downed cattle using their tails.
Compassion Over Killing also provided the video to the district attorney's office in Kings County, where the plant is located. The office is following the federal investigation before deciding whether to file state cruelty charges.
The slaughterhouse receives most of its cattle from the region's many dairies. Milk cows that are no longer productive are slaughtered mostly for hamburger meat.
Regional fast-food chain In-N-Out burger severed its contract with the company when it learned of the allegations of inhumane treatment.
The case also has attracted the attention of Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and subject of a documentary about her life working with livestock behavior issues while she struggled with autism.
In a release distributed by the American Meat Institute, she said some video clips of cows twitching after being shot in the head with a pneumatic gun are normal reflexes, but she did note some problems.
"I did observe some overly aggressive and unacceptable use of electric prods with non-ambulatory cattle and in sensitive areas like the face," she wrote. "I would classify this as egregious animal abuse."
The USDA had at least two inspectors stationed at the site, and federal officials, when asked whether there was evidence the inspectors had neglected their duties, said the investigation is ongoing.