Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. was considered so safe that federal authorities used millions of pounds of its beef to feed children under the National School Lunch Program, including students in Orange County. Meat from the Chino plant also landed in sirloin patties sold at Costcoand burgers and tacos served at In-N-Out Burger and Taco Bell, both headquartered in Irvine.
Mendell took pride in what many industry watchers called a state-of-the art operation, which specialized in slaughtering “spent” cows raised on Southern California dairy farms.
Weremight be the operative word.
Two of Mendell’s employees were caught on undercover video abusing disabled, or “downer” cows with forklifts, water hoses and electric prods. The graphic torture of the sick animals triggered the nation’s largest beef recall last month and forced Mendell to shut down the plant, now under federal investigation.
In the last few weeks, new evidence has emerged highlighting a history of violations at Westland/Hallmark. Wednesday, Mendell is expected to testify before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee to address his role in the abuse uncovered at his plant.
He’s declined numerous requests from The Orange County Register and other journalists to discuss the incident that’s given the meat industry a black-eye and perhaps more importantly — given consumers another reason to doubt the safety of America’s food supply.
Industry insiders say Mendell’s business may never recover.
“The financial cost of this recall alone I don’t know what company could survive it,” said Russell, whose trade group represents roughly 500 meat processors and packers across the nation.
CITED FOR ABUSE
Mendell, 55, has been in the beef business for at least 18 years.
Much of that time he acted as a meat broker, buying carcasses or slabs of beef from slaughterhouses. His company, Westland Meat Co., processed the beef and sold it to other meat suppliers.
One slaughterhouse Mendell patronized in the 1990s was Chino-based Hallmark Meat Co., owned by Donald Hallmark.
Records provided by animal advocacy groups and the USDA show that the Chino plant had been cited or warned several times over a decade for its inhumane handling of sick cows.
In a 1996 Farm Sanctuary memo, executive director Gene Bauston stated that he witnessed downer cows being “dragged off trucks.” Similar episodes were also documented a year later by the Pomona chapter of the Humane Society.
Hallmark, 73, acknowledged that his plant was under scrutiny when he ran it. He said he did what he could to comply with regulators and watchdog groups, including adding rubber mats in cattle pens.
He sold the business in 2000 to Mendell and his then-partner Aaron “Arnie” Magidow of Beverly Hills. Hallmark described Mendell as a good Christian and avid golfer who worked at least 12 hours a day.
“He’s a very hard worker. He’s a nice man,” said Hallmark.
At the time of the sale, Hallmark said the mid-size operation generated about $100 million a year slaughtering up to 500 cows a day.
CARVING A NICHE
Mendell and Magidow wasted no time in expanding Hallmark’s business.
They soon carved a niche in the meat industry by slaughtering spent dairy cows usually black-and-white Holsteins that had reached the end of their milk production cycle. They also made a play for one of the federal government’s most coveted accounts: The National School Lunch Program.
To comply with strict federal standards needed to be a government food supplier, Mendell invested millions to upgrade the facility.
Donald Hallmark recalled visiting the plant to see the improvements: New floors, a refurbished ceiling, stainless steel equipment and automated processing or meat slicing — machines.
“He didn’t spare any money,” said Hallmark.
Mendell was also a stickler about inspections, welcoming a “host of audits” from federal regulators, clients and independent auditors, according to Russell, of the meat association.
Within a few years, Mendell had transformed Hallmark’s humble facility into a “modernized state-of-the-art processing plant,” as the company once boasted on its website. In 2004-05 Westland/Hallmark was named Supplier of the Year for the National School Lunch Program, barely two years after nabbing the account.
Yet, in 2005, the USDA cited Westland/Hallmark for various inhumane violations, including “too much electric prodding” of cattle prior to moving them into killing pens. In response to the citation, the plant said it had re-trained workers and would “continue to monitor the corrals” to ensure livestock were being treated humanely.
Two years later, an undercover Humane Society investigator took a job at the Chino slaughterhouse in a random sting operation that would change Mendell’s life forever.
After getting hired in October, the Humane Society investigator spent the next six weeks shoveling manure and shooting video with a hidden camera.
He captured two longtime employees using a forklift, an electric prod and jets of water to force weak cows on their feet. They were evading a regulation that bars slaughter of “downer” cattle except those specifically cleared by a federal inspector.
Sick cows pose a risk of spreading mad cow disease, so the USDA prohibits their meat from entering the food supply.
In December, the Humane Society turned over copies of the videotape to the San Bernardino County District Attorney. After local prosecutors sat on the tape for weeks, the Humane Society released the horrific images on its website in late January during a press conference that made headlines across the nation.
The day before the video was released, a Washington Post reporter called Mendell to ask about the abuse.
“That could never be my facility,” Mendell told the reporter — according to Russell.
Mendell had turned to the leaders of his meat trade for advice once he knew the video would be made public the next day. Russell said Mendell was shaken by the video.
“He was shocked and disgusted that this was going on,” Russell said. “I have no other way to describe it. He couldn’t believe that it was his facility. His voice was shaking.”
The trade group told Mendell to act quickly, and fire the two employees. The move would hopefully distance the meat company from abusive acts presumably made by rogue workers.
But by mid-February, the USDA had pulled its inspectors from the Chino slaughterhouse and called for the recall of 143 million pounds of beef processed at Mendell’s plant over a two-year period.
Russell said Mendell “has been under water, dealing with the government” ever since the video was released.
In the meantime, those who know him say they can’t believe Mendell would advocate, or order, the abuse of crippled cows.
“He’s a great guy with a nice family,” said Dan Ciauri, who lives next-door to Mendell.
The neighbors of 10 years often talked outside their neatly landscaped front yards with eye-catching views of Orange County’s coastline. Ciauri said Mendell was so proud of the slaughterhouse that he believed it was a “model company everyone would like to have.”
“This whole thing just doesn’t add up,” Ciauri said.
Donald Hallmark, who called the video “terrible,” questioned why the Humane Society’s undercover investigator didn’t alert USDA inspectors when they first spotted the abuse.
“They sat and waited and blind sided (Mendell) for no reason,” said Hallmark.
Paul Shapiro, who oversees the Humane Society’s factory farming campaign, said the abuse was a criminal act that warranted an investigation by local prosecutors, not the USDA. When asked if Mendell was present on the plant floor when the downer cows were tortured, Shapiro said: “No.”
Then added: “The abuse was happening out in the open and wasn’t a secret.”
Regardless of what happens next for Mendell, the damage to the packing house that still bears Hallmark’s name is already done. “He had a beautiful business,” Hallmark said. “But, it’s lost now. Years of hard work, shot.”
Click here to view the shocking undercover video.