California slaughterhouse the latest to be charged with violating health safety

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A Northern California slaughterhouse involved in a massive beef recall for processing cows with cancer and later distributing the meat, was charged in federal court on Aug. 18. The case is the latest development in a growing movement by health and animal-welfare advocates challenging the factory-farming industry.

In court filings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Petaluma-based Rancho Feeding Corp. circumvented federal inspection rules against processing diseased and unhealthy animals.  As reported by The Associated Press, prosecutors alleged that Petaluma’s owners schemed with employees to slaughter about 79 cows with skin cancer of the eye while federal inspectors took lunch breaks. The government alleges that plant workers swapped the heads of diseased cattle with heads of healthy cows to hide them from inspectors.

Rancho operations were halted in February after a series of recalls, including one for 8.7 million pounds of beef that was sold at Walmart and other national discount chains. The diseased carcasses were also used in making products such as Hot Pockets.

Slaughterhouse co-owners Jesse Amaral Jr. and Robert Singleton and employees Eugene Corda and Felix Cabrera were charged with distribution of adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat.

More than 1,600 food distributors in the United States and Canada were alerted to the recall that asked consumers to return products, including beef jerky, taquitos, hamburger patties and Hot Pockets frozen sandwiches.

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Meat recalls have become increasingly common in recent years as slaughterhouses, driven to increase profits, fortify animals with heavy doses of antibiotics and steroids to enable them survive the crowded and squalid conditions in which they’re kept. The treatment of animals in slaughterhouses has infuriated animal-rights groups, but there have been no conclusive studies measuring its effect on the potential health hazards for meat consumers. Like the NRA, the factory farming industry is so rich and powerful that few lawmakers will publicly oppose it, knowing that to do so would destroy their political careers.

So-called “ag gag” laws promoted by the corporate right have been enacted in seven states since 2012, making it a crime for workers at slaughterhouses at factory farms to photograph or videotape the mistreatment of animals. The laws have been effective in shutting down hidden-camera investigations conducted by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare groups.

“If you think that chilling speech and closing the curtain on our food production is winning, then yes, they’ve won,” Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of the Humane Society of the United States, told ABC News earlier this year.

The constitutionality of Idaho’s ag–gag law, the most recent to be approved, has been legally challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety.

Under Idaho’s law, whistle-blowers face up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine for documenting the abuses of factory farmers and slaughterhouse workers. But the maximum jail term for a first-offense conviction of animal cruelty in Idaho is only six months.

“In other words, Idaho more severely punishes those who expose animal cruelty than those who commit it,” said the ACLU in a press statement announcing the suit.

The battle between the factory farm industry and animal rights/health activists has become a major issue in most of the nation’s agricultural states.

A video shot last fall by an undercover investigator working for Mercy for Animals resulted in four workers at a Wisconsin dairy farm being charged with animal cruelty.

Released last December, the video shows workers at Wiese Brothers Farm in Greenleaf, Wisconsin, beating, kicking, whipping and prodding sick and disabled cows at Wiese Brothers Farms in Greenleaf, Wisconsin. The video also shows workers dragging the cows with heavy farm equipment, and cows with open wounds housed in unsanitary conditions.

Wiese, which was part of the supply chain for DiGiorno’s Pizza, was charged with 11 counts of criminal animal cruelty.

DiGiorno immediately cut its ties with Wiese.

“In January we launched a new strenuous audit program in the U.S. that targets our direct supplies as well as others who do business with or provide ingredients to our direct suppliers,” DiGiorno announced. “This includes third-party, in-person audits of our U.S. dairy supply. All companies in our supply chain will be measured against our Nestle Supplier Code and Responsible Sourcing Guidelines, which outline our standards for animal welfare.”

With laws overseeing animal welfare being written by big business, it’s now up to consumers and companies like DiGirono that use factory-farmed meat products to determine whether the heinous cruelties employed on factory farms will remain profitable.