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$500 million agreement settles Calif. slaughterhouse abuse case

FRESNO, Calif. — A landmark $500 million agreement has been reached to settle a slaughterhouse abuse case in California that led to the biggest meat recall in US history in 2008, an animal welfare group announced Friday.

The civil settlement with the owners of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. is the largest-ever penalty for an animal abuse case, and the first time federal fraud statutes have been used, according to the Humane Society of the United States, the lead plaintiff. The settlement is largely symbolic because the company is bankrupt.

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‘‘It’s a deterrence judgment,’’ said Jonathan R. Lovvorn, chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the Humane Society of the United States. ‘‘It informs other federal government contractors that when your contract says you provide humane handling, if you don’t do that you’re likely to end up bankrupt as well.’’

As a supplier of meats for the national school lunch program, the Riverside County company had signed federal contracts certifying that it would provide humane treatment of animals sent there for slaughter. The animal welfare group filed a civil complaint in US District Court in Riverside in 2009, and the US Justice Department intervened after research showed that one of the packing plant partners had two felony convictions related to illegal industry practices.

‘‘This is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit regarding farm animals, the first time federal fraud statutes have been applied,’’ Lovvorn said.

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