Lawmaker proposes stripping USDA of safety oversight

February 19, 2008 8:02:30 PM PST
A lawmaker called Tuesday for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be stripped of its responsibility for food safety in the wake of the nation's largest-ever meat recall. The agency's twin mandates of promoting the nation's agriculture and monitoring it for safety have become blurred, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro said.

"Food safety ought to be of a high enough priority in this nation that we have a single agency that deals with it and not an agency that is responsible for promoting a product, selling a product and then as an afterthought dealing with how our food supply is safe," said DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for the USDA's funding.

She made her remarks during a conference call with reporters about the recall of some 143 million pounds of beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006, from Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.

Phone messages left for USDA spokesman Keith Williams and Westland president Steve Mendell were not immediately returned.

USDA officials announced the recall Sunday after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing crippled and sick animals at the slaughterhouse being shoved with forklifts.

Federal regulations discourage slaughterhouses from processing "downer cows" into meat because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease, but the USDA still permits them to be used with an inspector's approval, Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said.

No illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef, health officials said.

Officials estimate that about 55 million pounds of the recalled beef went to USDA nutrition programs, the bulk of it for schools, Pacelle said.

DeLauro planned a pair of hearings for early March to examine why federal inspectors did not note the mistreatment and take steps to ensure that "the school lunch program does not become the industry dumping ground for bad meat."

Pacelle said he hoped the attention to downer cattle would prompt lawmakers to pass pending legislation in the House and Senate that would keep all downer cows out of the food supply.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the conference call that the U.S. Government Accountability Office had started investigating the safety of the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the USDA.

Also on Tuesday, Chino police said they had arrested one of the meatpacking workers charged with animal cruelty in the case.

Daniel Ugarte Navarro, who worked as a pen manager at the slaughterhouse, was taken into custody Saturday at his Pomona home on a warrant issued the day before, police spokeswoman Michelle Vanderlinden said. He was released Sunday on $7,500 bail.

Navarro, 49, was charged with five felony counts of animal abuse and three misdemeanor counts of illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal, San Bernardino County prosecutor Debbie Ploghaus said. The counts carry a maximum prison sentence of 5 years, 8 months, she said.

Navarro will be assigned an attorney by the county public defender's office at his arraignment on March 24, Ploghaus said.

Luis Sanchez, 32, of Chino, was charged with three misdemeanor counts and remained at large, Ploghaus said.

Attempts to find phone listings for Navarro and Sanchez were not successful. Both men were fired after the Humane Society released the video.

Westland's business practices also are being investigated for possible state or local violations, prosecutor Glenn Yabuno said. He did not elaborate.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the USDA to complete a quick investigation of the apparent mistreatment and offered the support of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Schwarzenegger said he supports legislation by state Sen. Dean Florez that would allow California school districts to be reimbursed for beef bought from Westland. Florez said he was consulting with lawyers over whether the slaughterhouse could be forced to pay for the reimbursements.

California schools reported ordering some 7.4 million pounds beef from the company since July 2007, according to Florez's office.

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Associated Press writer Denise Petski contributed to this report.


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