Chino beef inspectors put on leave

Times Staff Writer

At least two federal inspectors who worked at the Chino slaughterhouse at the center of the largest-ever beef recall have been put on paid leave, union officials said Friday.

Stan Painter, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said a USDA labor relations representative confirmed to him that one inspector and one supervising veterinarian were put on administrative leave effective Friday.

Local union leaders told Painter a third supervisor at the now-shuttered Hallmark/Westland plant was also sent home, but USDA officials would not confirm that, he said.


U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said the agency would not discuss with the media whether any disciplinary action had been taken since the recall of 143 million pounds of beef last month.

“We are unable to comment because of the ongoing investigation,” said USDA spokeswoman Angela Harless.

The forced leaves would mark the first action taken by the department against its inspectors at Hallmark/Westland. At the time of the recall, USDA officials said employees at the plant failed to follow regulations requiring them to notify the veterinarian when cattle collapsed after they had been inspected and approved for slaughter.

Painter said USDA officials told the union that they had obtained information that warranted placing the employees on leave. But officials would not discuss why they were taking action or how long the leaves would be, he said.

Painter would not identify the union inspector who was disciplined, but he said the man worked as a “floor inspector,” monitoring employees in the pen areas and making sure animals were treated humanely. Because of staffing shortages, Painter said, the floor inspector was often pulled away to work on the slaughter line, inspecting carcasses after animals were killed.

Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said numerous inspectors nationwide have told her that inspectors are often called on to perform more than one job because of short staffing. Nearly one in 10 inspection positions are vacant, according to the USDA. Because post-slaughter inspections have priority, Nestor said, there is often too little oversight of the treatment of animals leading up to slaughter.


Painter said the USDA routinely disciplines on-site inspectors to skirt its own responsibility.

“I’m not surprised, this is not the first time the agency has used the person on the floor as the scapegoat,” Painter said. “The agency always blames the inspector, they never blame themselves. They never look at their policy or their role that may have caused the situation.”

The possibility that ill cows entered the food chain came to light in late January when the Humane Society of the United States released a video shot by an undercover investigator showing Hallmark/Westland employees forcing weak or “downer” cattle to their feet using forklifts, electric prods and high-pressure water hoses.

More than two weeks later, the USDA recalled beef processed at the plant over the last two years, about a third of which had gone to schools nationwide for lunch programs. Authorities have repeatedly expressed confidence in the federal meat inspection system that has 7,800 inspectors at 6,200 facilities.

Five USDA inspectors worked at the Chino slaughterhouse and meatpacking company. Officials said some non-ambulatory cattle -- which are banned from human food because of higher risks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease -- may have been slaughtered at the plant.

Hallmark/Westland, which stopped operating soon after the video’s release, was the second-largest supplier of ground beef to the USDA-run federal food assistance programs.