Letter to Vilsack points out job losses and impact on local beef prices after undercover video results in plant closure. Meanwhile, the slaughterhouse is working on action plan with USDA.
Saying the local economy would be "devastated" if the slaughterhouse remains closed, three U.S. congressmen representing Central California districts urged USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday to immediately reopen the plant that was shut down earlier this week after an undercover video showed alleged abuse of dairy cows.
Hundreds of employees at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif., have been idled as a result of the facility’s closure, causing "enormous economic stress in a community with double-digit unemployment," U.S. representatives Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham noted in their letter to Vilsack. They added that the shutdown has also lowered the price of beef in the region, resulting in further economic hardship for farmers.
"In our view, the public interest is best served by quickly deploying the necessary personnel to supervise the plant’s resumption of operations under conditions that meet appropriate regulations," the three wrote. "You have had ample time to do this. The investigation can and should continue, but does not necessitate a prolonged and economically disastrous full stoppage of operations."
USDA should also "more aggressively clarify" that the food supply has not been in jeopardy as a result of the alleged violation," they added.
"It is also important to note that USDA had a number of full-time inspectors on duty during the period in which the alleged violations occurred," Nunes, McCarthy and Denham noted. "Despite their active presence throughout the facility at the time, there is no record of non-compliance. In the strongest possible terms we urge you, as the head of the Agency charged with a science-based approach to securing the United States food supply, to intervene against the onslaught of attacks that are occurring at the behest of radical groups."
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) continues to conduct a thorough investigation into alleged activities at the facility, said spokesman Dirk Fillpot.
Central Valley Meat Co. owners "must first submit a corrective action plan detailing how they intend to comply with humane handling regulations before USDA considers allowing them to operate," Fillpot said. "After receipt of the plan, USDA will review the proposal to determine next steps. USDA continues to conduct a thorough investigation into alleged activities at the facility."
Central Valley Meat, responding through Edelman, the public relations firm it’s hired, said it submitted an action plan to USDA on Thursday.
The company said it is "working with USDA and consulting with third-party animal welfare experts to investigate and rectify any violations that may have occurred."
Its action plan "includes enhanced video monitoring of our facilities, an increased number of third-party audits, and more comprehensive training for our personnel; all of which not only meets, but exceeds the current guidelines of both USDA and our customers," the company said.
Western United Dairymen (WUD), a dairy producer organization that represents about 60% of the state’s milk production, said it supports the congressmen’s request and was pleased the three had moved so quickly in urging that plant operations resume.
"That plant re-opening needs to take place," said Michael Marsh, WUD’s CEO. "Hundreds of people are now without jobs. Having the facility shut down sure hasn’t been good for beef prices. Given the economic distress of California dairies, this was another shoe to fall. This is also going to be a challenge for the plant owners because they’ve lost a lot of customers."
In the wake of the video’s release, USDA, McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger have halted their meat purchases from the plant. Although there has been talk that fast-food chain Wendy’s had stopped its purchases, company spokesman Denny Lynch said, "We did not and do not purchase beef from Central Valley [Meat Co.]."
While WUD’s Marsh said Central Valley Meat Co. employees "clearly need some training," he was troubled by the video for another reason.
"If somebody was concerned about the treatment of cows at the plant, why not step up and speak to a supervisor to get it fixed?" Marsh asked. "It’s because the animal rights group wanted to sensationalize it and advance its own agenda."
Writing on his website, Nunes compared the release of the video by animal activists to the "eco-terrorism" act involving Harris Ranch of Coalinga, Calif., in January.
"The video was posted by extremists who are actively working to undermine production agriculture in the United States," Nunes wrote. "In recent years, these kinds of ‘activists’ have increased their attacks on animal agriculture, and have even carried out acts of domestic terrorism. For example, in early 2012 a group used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to blow up fourteen trucks used for transporting livestock not far from Hanford, citing animal welfare as their excuse. Now, area residents are confronted with economic terrorism."
The three members of congress are Republicans. Nunes, of Visalia, Calif., represents California’s 21st Congressional District. McCarthy represents California’s 22nd Congressional District. From Bakersfield, he serves as Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives.Denham, of Turlock, Calif., represents the state’s 19th Congressional District.