The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ordered the closing of the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. plant in Chino, California, where animal rights activists said they videotaped "downer" cows being prepared for slaughter.

Cows that cannot stand up are banned from the food supply because it is a primary characteristic of an animal with Mad Cow disease. The Humane Society of the U.S. says it obtained video evidence that workers at the plant repeatedly attempted to force "downed" animals onto their feet and into the human food chain.

Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, Dr. Richard Raymond, says the Food Safety and Inspection Service has suspended inspections at the plant "based on the establishment's clear violation of Federal regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act."

The plant had been closed voluntarily since the video first surfaced and USDA launched an investigation. Raymond said suspension is a regulatory course of action available when FSIS finds egregious violations of humane handling regulations.

He said the suspension will remain in effect and the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company will not be allowed to operate until written corrective actions are submitted and verified by FSIS to ensure that animals are humanely handled.

"An important point needs the public's attention," Raymond said. "On Jan. 30, USDA placed an administrative hold on all Westland Meat Packing Company products because of potential violations of regulatory requirements and contractual terms as a supplier of products to the Federal food and nutrition programs."

School lunch program

According to a Humane Society release, Hallmark's Chino slaughter plant supplies the Westland Meat Co., which processes the carcasses.

The facility is the second-largest supplier of beef to USDA's Commodity Procurement Branch, which distributes the beef to needy families, the elderly and also to schools through the National School Lunch Program.

In the video, workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, and applying painful electrical shocks in attempts to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.

School districts coast to coast and some franchise restaurants went on alert after the revelations.

"We're in contact with our suppliers, and they're in contact with their suppliers. It's a huge chain of activity," Joanne Tucker, a food services marketing coordinator for the San Diego Unified School District, told the Los Angeles Times.

Westland was named a USDA "supplier of the year" for 2004-2005 and has delivered beef to schools in 36 states. More than 100,000 schools and child-care facilities nationwide receive meat through the lunch program, according to HSUS.