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Feb 12, 2007
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Is the same standard applied to imported beef? Are there the same safe guards in place to insure compliance? I still can't believe with starving people in the world, 143 million pounds of beef was ordered discarded. Stupid government.

Washington Bureau

Special Section: Chino Beef Recall

WASHINGTON - The head of the Humane Society lauded the federal government's decision to join in a $150 million lawsuit against the Chino meat plant involved in the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

The Department of Justice late Friday announced it would pursue the lawsuit against the now defunct Westland/Hallmark Meat. Co. Once the second largest supplier of beef to the National School Lunch Program, Westland/Hallmark knowingly and falsely claimed that animals at the plant were treated humanely and that no "downers" -- cows to sick or injured to stand -- were slaughtered for food.

Downer cows carry a higher risk of spreading illness, including mad cow disease.

The Humane Society of the United States, whose undercover investigation at the Chino plant prompted last year's recall of 143 million pounds of beef, originally filed the lawsuit as a whistleblower under the False Claims Act. Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle commended the government's decision.

"It is a major statement by the federal government that it will not tolerate fraud and deception," Pacelle said. "There could be severe economic consequences for what's left of this company."

Attempts to reach Westland/Hallmark president Steve Mendell were unsuccessful. Mendell has said he was unaware of the abuse at the plant, and did not condone it.

An undercover investigator for The Humane Society of the United States took a job at the plant in late 2007 and secretly filmed other workers abusing animals. In the footage, downer cows were beaten, shocked, sprayed with high-pressure hoses, dragged with chains and rammed with a forklift, all apparently so they would walk into the "kill box."

The video also provided evidence that downer cows were slaughtered, a violation of the plant's government contract that triggered the recall.

"The alleged misrepresentations by Hallmark and Westland could have impacted the health of many of our nation's most vulnerable citizens -- our schoolchildren," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Division. "Our intervention in this case demonstrates how seriously we will pursue allegations such as these."

Because the Humane Society filed the lawsuit as a whistleblower, it was kept sealed until federal prosecutors intervened in the case. The whistleblower status also entitles the Humane Society to receive as much as 25 percent of the money recovered from Westland/Hallmark, said Charles Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department's civil division.

Though Humane Society officials said they are suing the plant for $150 million, Miller declined to specify an amount, and Justice Department officials said they plan to file an amended complaint. By law, the government is entitled to seek as much as three times the amount of taxpayer money lost to fraud, Miller said.

Separately, the Agriculture Department has filed a warranty action against Westland/Hallmark seeking $67.2 million. Appearing under subpoena at a congressional hearing in the recall's aftermath, Mendell told lawmakers he was uncertain whether he would be able to repay the government.

On Saturday, Jonathan R. Lovvorn, a lawyer for the Humane Society said it was unclear how much money could be recovered.

"We do think whatever they have should go back to the taxpayers," he said.