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By Frederic J. Frommer
WASHINGTON (AP) — A film showing slaughterhouse workers abusing animals spurs demands for the federal government to put a stop to the behavior. That happened this year — and also a half-century ago, when a Seattle animal rights activist filmed hogs being mistreated at a Washington state slaughterhouse.
The 1950s film helped trigger a fierce debate on Capitol Hill over whether animals deserve some federal protection in their final moments. Congress ultimately decided they did, and 50 years ago this summer, lawmakers passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which required that meat purchased by the federal government come from processors who kill their livestock humanely.
Now Congress is taking another look at slaughterhouse practices following undercover video filmed by the Humane Society of the United States. The video showed workers at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., shoving and kicking sick, crippled cattle, forcing them to stand using electric prods, forklifts and water hoses. In response, the Agriculture Department shut down the plant, citing "egregious violations of humane handling regulations." Two fired workers have been charged with crimes.
The department has since ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of the company's beef — the largest in U.S. history — because Westland/Hallmark didn't prevent "downer" cattle from entering the food supply. Downers, those too sick or injured to walk, pose a greater risk of illnesses such as mad cow disease.
In response to the beef recall, Congress is again holding hearings, starting Thursday in the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, which has oversight of the USDA budget.
Fifty years ago, the hog slaughter film by Arthur P. Redman galvanized animal welfare advocates to pursue legislation. The film was shown at a congressional hearing in 1957 and Congress passed the landmark humane slaughter law the following year.
Speaking during debate on the day of the bill's passage, then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota Democrat and future vice president, said: "We are morally compelled, here in this hour, to try to imagine — to try to feel in our own nerves — the totality of the suffering of 100 million tortured animals. The issue before us today is pain, agony and cruelty — and what a moral man must do about it in view of his own conscience."
Humphrey, perhaps best known for his championing of civil rights, also pushed humane slaughter legislation for years, first introducing a bill in 1955. Initially, he wanted to make humane slaughter mandatory, but wound up settling for a compromise that made it a condition of doing business with the federal government. In 1978, the year Humphrey died, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., won passage of legislation making compliance mandatory, fulfilling Humphrey's original vision.
In the late 1950s, Congress was awash in debate on the humane slaughter issue. The New York Times, in a May 4, 1958, story headlined "Humane Appeals Swamp Congress," described how constituent letters on the subject dwarfed those on foreign policy, the economy and defense. Four days of Senate hearings, the Times reported, attracted large crowds, mostly of women.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation despite the Agriculture Department's opposition.
"If I depended on my mail," he said after the hearings, "I would think humane slaughter is the only thing anyone is interested in."
The law required slaughterhouses doing business with the federal government to render livestock insensitive to pain, by, for example, a single blow or gunshot, before the animals were "shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut."
The legislation took aim at so-called "knockers" who would stun animals with a sledgehammer. Humphrey said this led to animals being "hammered into unconsciousness.... The hammer knocks off horns, mashes noses, breaks jaws, pounds out eyes."
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who will hold Thursday's hearing, said the beef recall exposed "staggering gaps" in the inspection system, and that he would press Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer for an audit of all U.S. plants.
"I believe we cannot allow a single downer cow to enter our food supply under any circumstances," Kohl said in a statement. "I think a problem of this magnitude can only be fixed through tougher standards, round-the-clock surveillance and stiffer penalties."
Kohl's House counterpart, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., has called for the USDA to be stripped of its oversight of food safety, and plans her own hearings next month.
Meanwhile, animal welfare advocates are using the California slaughterhouse incident to help spur calls for more inspectors, as well as legislation including a total ban on downer cattle being slaughtered for food. In 2003, the USDA announced such a ban, but last year, in finalizing it, the department said cattle that get injured after they pass inspection will be re-evaluated to determine whether they are eligible for slaughter.
On Wednesday, the Humane Society sued the government, saying the policy allows downers to enter the food supply.
"You could have cows tormented to stand up momentarily to pass inspection, and then go down," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's factory farming campaign. "We want that loophole to be closed. Crippled cattle should be humanely euthanized — not forced to get up to march to their own slaughter."
The American Meat Institute, an industry group, said in a statement that the Humane Society's concerns were "alarmist and unfounded."
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