Charges of meat plant cruelty filed

Video of workers at the Chino facility had prompted schools nationwide to pull beef from their menus.

February 16, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer

San Bernardino County prosecutors Friday filed felony charges against a former Chino slaughterhouse manager who allegedly used cruel methods to force ailing cattle into the slaughter box.

The charges follow last month's release of a video showing treatment of animals at the plant, which led to schools nationwide pulling beef from cafeterias.

In what prosecutors called unprecedented charges, Daniel Ugarte Navarro, 49, of Pomona faces up to eight years and eight months in prison if convicted of five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanor counts of illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal.

Navarro, who was a head pen manager at Hallmark Meat Packing, was shown using forklifts, electric prods and high-pressure water hoses to force cows to their feet in the video surreptitiously shot by the Humane Society of the United States.

"It makes your stomach turn to see what they did to the cows in this situation," Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos said at a news conference Friday. "We want to send the message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated."

Authorities also filed three misdemeanor counts against Navarro's assistant, Luis Sanchez, 32, of Chino. Sanchez faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Hallmark fired both Navarro and Sanchez last month following the video's release.

Neither Navarro nor Sanchez appeared at their arraignments Friday afternoon at a Chino courthouse. Warrants were issued for their arrest.

Reached at his home Friday, Sanchez, a father of two, said he regretted his actions and that he was only following orders.

"I did it because they ordered me to. I obeyed them; if not, I lost my job," Sanchez said in Spanish. "I knew it was illegal but they obliged me to do it." Sanchez said he is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and that he worked at Hallmark for six years before he was fired last month. He is not represented by an attorney.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week suspended inspections at Hallmark, which in effect closed the plant. The USDA inspector general is investigating the case, but this week several members of Congress also called for an independent federal investigation of the safety of food the USDA supplies to schools.

Hallmark was the second-largest supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, which provides commodities and cash subsidies to schools.

The Humane Society presented the video to the San Bernardino County district attorney's office Dec. 19, officials said. Chino Police Department Rural Crime Task Force detectives, who are trained in humane treatment of cattle, conducted investigations at the plant and interviewed witnesses to verify the Humane Society's allegations, according to police reports.

Ramos said investigations were continuing and that his office was also cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office.

Police identified in the video 11 instances of alleged illegal activity between Oct. 11 and Nov. 9 of last year. The actions were documented by a Humane Society investigator working undercover at the plant. He shot footage with what was described in police reports as a pen camera attached to a button on his chest.

In one scene, where Navarro is shown using a paddle to hit a non-ambulatory cow in the face and eye, detectives determined "it is obvious by the video that Navarro is attempting to get the animal to her feet and subsequently to the kill floor to be slaughtered," according to police reports.

Cattle that cannot walk on their own are banned from the human meat supply because they are at higher risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

In voluntary interviews with the police, Navarro appeared to be "minimizing his role in the improper handling of the live animals by saying that it was Sanchez who had mistreated a cow by pulling it with a chain," according to police reports. Navarro seemed to have a good understanding of state and federal regulations on the treatment of cows, investigators wrote in the report.

Navarro told Chino police that a former owner of the plant, Donny Hallmark, instructed him to use techniques such as forcing animals up with the forklift or holding water hoses to the nostrils of cattle.

In four instances, the videos showed so-called "downer" cattle being executed after workers were unable to force them to their feet, police reports indicate. Those cows did not enter the human food supply. In another instance, however, a cow that had collapsed was shocked with a cattle prod until it eventually stood up and entered the slaughter box, according to the reports.

Authorities are also considering action against the management of Hallmark for alleged unfair business practices, Ramos said.

"For so many district attorneys, animal cruelty issues are very new," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said Friday. "It's a process. . . . Today we heard that he treats it as a serious issue."

The plant may not reopen until a plan for corrective action is submitted and approved by federal authorities.

School districts nationwide have pulled suspect beef from their cafeteria menus, although the USDA has said no evidence was found that so-called downer cattle had entered the food supply.

Times staff writers Daniela Perdomo and Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.

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