FRESNO, Calif. (TheBlaze/AP) — Advocates for the humane treatment of animals -- including those headed to slaughter -- claim victory this week as a Central California slaughterhouse was shut down thanks to an undercover video showing dairy cows being tortured as they were butchered. In a separate incident, two men accused of inhumane, illegal slaughter of pigs and other animals in Florida were arrested late last week.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects meat facilities, suspended operations Monday at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif., which slaughters cows when they lose their value as milk producers.
The USDA received hours of videotape Friday from Compassion Over Killing, an animal welfare group, which said its undercover investigator was employed by the slaughterhouse and made the video over a two-week period in June.
"USDA considers inhumane treatment of animals at slaughter facilities to be unacceptable and is conducting a thorough investigation into these allegations," said Justin DeJong, spokesman for the Food Safety Inspection Service.
Four minutes of excerpts the animal welfare group provided to The Associated Press showed cows being prepared for slaughter. One worker is seen suffocating a cow by standing on its muzzle after a gun that injects a bolt into the animal's head had failed to render it unconscious. In another clip, a cow is still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifts it by one leg for transport to an area where the animals' throats are slit for blood draining.
"The horror caught on camera is sickening," said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, based in Washington, D.C. "It's alarming that this is not only a USDA-inspected facility but a supplier to the USDA."
Online USDA records show the company has contracted to sell ground beef to USDA food programs.
Within hours of seeing the video, the USDA's Office of Inspector General sent investigators who found evidence of "egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock."
"FSIS suspended operations at the facility and is prepared to take further action as warranted by the investigation," DeJong said.
The USDA had at least two inspectors stationed at the site, and federal officials, when asked whether they had neglected their duties, said only that the investigation is ongoing.
Central Valley Meat Co., owned by Brian and Lawrence Coelho, declined to comment on the video, saying company officials had not seen it.
"We were extremely disturbed to be informed by the USDA that ... our plant could not operate based upon a videotape that was provided to the Department by a third party group that alleged inhumane treatment of animals on our property," said a company statement.
Brian Coelho added, "Our company seeks not just to meet federal humane handling regulations, but exceed them."
Meier produced pay stubs confirming the undercover operative's stint working at the slaughterhouse.
The videos show workers pulling downed cows by their tails and kicking them in an apparent attempt to get them to stand and walk to slaughter. Others shoot downed cows in the head over and over as the cows thrash on the ground. In one instance, the video shows workers trying to get cattle to back out of a chute while repeatedly spraying them with water and shocking them.
Veterinarians specializing in humane handling were a part of the USDA's rapid initial inspection that led to the shutdown at Central Valley Meat Co. The USDA told plant officials Sunday that it was withholding inspection marks and "immediately suspending the assignment of inspectors at the facility."
"It's a good sign that the USDA is taking this seriously, but I want to see what comes next," said Meier, adding the video will be posted on the organization's website Tuesday. "The footage clearly speaks for itself, but this is not an isolated incident. Investigation after investigation of these places is revealing cruelty."
In a separate incident last week, WSVN-TV reports two men were arrested in Miami-Dade County, Fla., on several charges of inhumane treatment of pigs they illegally butchered and sold the meat. Gelio Hernandez and Angel Busurot plead not guilty to the charges in court Friday. Here is more from WSVN-TV on the case:
Investigators say Busurot was the ringleader of the slaughtering operation and has been slaughtering animals for quite some time. Richard Couto of the Animal Recovery Mission said, "This guy has been butchering animals alive for years and years."
7News obtained exclusive video of the horrific slaughters. According to authorities, the suspects would kill the animals, including pigs and goats, while they were still alive; then, they would illegally sell the animals' meat. "The animals are being beaten, they're not being fed properly," said Couto, "and worst of all, is that they're being taken apart prior to death."
The operation was once shut down back in 2010 but re-emerged. "They weren't hit hard enough with penalties and prosecuted properly," said Couto.
Watch WSVN-TV's report:
The two men, if convicted of the charges, could face up to 15 years in prison.