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An animal lover in the lion's den

Secret slaughterhouse taping takes a toll on humane agency agent.

February 19, 2008|Steve Chawkins and Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writers

To protect his identity and frustrate possible retaliation, the undercover investigator behind the biggest beef recall in U.S. history refuses to disclose his name, his marital status, his hometown, his job background or even his age. One of the few personal things he will reveal is his culinary preference: He's a vegan.

But in a telephone interview Monday, the investigator for the Humane Society of the United States sketched a vivid, bleak account of his six weeks at a Chino slaughterhouse that supplied meat to school lunch programs and supermarkets throughout the U.S.

By day, the investigator said, he helped drive cattle from trucks and pens into a chute that led to the killing floor. But at the same time, he employed a tiny, hidden camera to film the alleged brutalization of animals too weak or sick to walk to slaughter. Under federal regulations, only animals able to walk on their own can be used for meat.

At night, the agent said, he retired, exhausted and manure-flecked, to an Ontario motel to chronicle his findings in a notebook and lock his videotapes in a closet safe.

"It was so blatant, so commonplace," he said, speaking from a location he wouldn't reveal. "It was so in-your-face . . . they were pushing animals we felt never should have qualified for human consumption."

The video produced by the undercover operation led the San Bernardino County district attorney to file criminal charges against two workers at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. and prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce the recall of 143 million pounds of beef. USDA officials said they believed most of the meat had already been consumed, and that the risk to the public was minimal.

The plant is now closed, and company officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

The investigator said he was on an unrelated mission -- one he wouldn't disclose -- when he first stopped by the Chino plant. Until then, he said, he didn't realize that most of the animals slaughtered at Hallmark/Westland were former dairy cattle -- many, he said, already weak and emaciated when they were trucked in.

The investigator said he gave his real name and Social Security number and had no trouble getting the job. At $8 an hour for 12-hour days of grueling labor, he said, turnover was so high that managers seemed happy to have anyone who wouldn't quit the next day.

He worked from sunup till sundown, driving cattle down a long, narrow chute to the slaughter box. At the end of the day, he would spend about an hour shoveling manure and cleaning up.

During short lunch breaks in his car, he ate soy burgers and fake deli meat in an attempt to appear like other employees.

From his first day, he started getting glimpses of alleged illegal actions that he said were routine. When a cow collapsed on its way to the slaughter box, two workers immediately jumped into the chute. One grabbed the cow by its tail and the other shocked it with electrical prods, he said. When that failed, workers killed the cow on the spot, hooked a chain around the animal's neck and dragged it all the way into the slaughter box on its knees.

Cattle that cannot walk -- called downer cattle -- have a higher occurrence of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and are supposed to be euthanized on the spot and removed immediately.

As the investigator toiled in 100-degree heat, sweaty and smelly, he documented the actions through a pinhole camera he wore under his shirt and controlled with a switch in his pocket, he said. With only one hour of recording capability each day, he constantly had to make judgment calls and save his tape for what he saw as the most egregious practices.

He said he saw weaker animals being prodded upright, or having water shot into their nostrils before shakily walking to slaughter. Some downer cows were hauled with chains. He said a supervisor would order his men to "get them up! Get them up!" when cows seemed too sick to walk.

But government officials charged with inspecting the process were never present to witness such actions, he said.

"There just wasn't that level of oversight," he said. "As cows are making their final steps, there's no USDA personnel objecting to this behavior."

A self-described "behind-the-scenes person," the undercover employee said he had been concerned about animal treatment since he was a child.

"It takes a special person to do what he does," said Frank Loftus, a former broadcast journalist who heads investigations for the Humane Society and supervises undercover operations. "When you're doing undercover stuff . . . you're seeing it firsthand."

The long days took their toll, the investigator said. Aching and sweat-drenched, he would return to his motel, check the recordings and make sure his camera had worked properly. Then he would jot down the day's major events in a journal, load his camera for the next day and flop into bed.

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