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Thursday, April 18, 2013 06:49 am

Not hog heaven

Former Cargill worker sues

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A former worker at the Cargill pork processing plant in Beardstown has sued the company, alleging that she was fired after she complained that the company was packaging spoiled meat for sale.

Tamatha Hausman, who lives in Mason County, alleges that the company ordered workers to repackage at least one truckload of meat that had been returned by a customer in November of 2011. The meat that workers began repackaging on Nov. 14 of that year had an expiration date of Oct. 26 and was unsafe for human consumption, Hausman claims in her lawsuit filed last month in Sangamon County Circuit Court.

“Plaintiff observed and became aware that portions of the returned meat were spoiled, black, slimy and exuding the recognizable and foul odor of rancid and decomposing meat,” attorneys for Hausman write in court documents. “(O)ne or more of the plaintiff’s co-workers who were working with or around the returned meat became physically ill or nauseous.”

A customer in Texas had refused delivery of the meat, Hausman says. Based on smell and appearance, the plant’s quality assurance employees separated the meat into tubs, one for apparent sale to consumers and the other for pet food, Hausman says. She also says in court documents that she took photographs with her cellphone.

Hausman says that she complained to managers and an on-site inspector from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, asking the inspector, “Would you feed this meat to your family?” After she complained, the inspector stopped the repackaging, but it was restarted by managers, Hausman alleges. She says that she also complained to the USDA via an email and gave the agency photographs of meat being repackaged.

What the USDA did with the information isn’t clear. There is no indication on the agency’s website that includes data on violations at specific businesses that the USDA found any violations or assessed any fines. Hausman says that she spoke up to protect the public.

“Plaintiff … had a good faith and honest belief that defendant was preparing to sell meat to the public that was unfit, unsafe and dangerous for human consumption and that such sales would be in violation of statutory and common law,” lawyers for Hausman write in the lawsuit.

The day after she first complained, Hausman says that she was again ordered to repackage the spoiled meat. She says that she was sent home after she objected, but other employees who did not complain about repackaging the meat stayed on the job. She says she was told to repackage the meat on a third day, but was assigned to other tasks when she objected. She says she does not know what ultimately happened to the meat.

“While plaintiff observed the returned meat being repackaged and prepared for sale to customers and ultimately consumers, plaintiff has no direct knowledge that defendant actually sold the meat or whether after becoming aware of plaintiff’s objections and subsequent report to the USDA defendant abandoned its apparent attempt to sell the meat to customers and ultimately consumers,” lawyers for Hausman write in the lawsuit.

Five days after she complained to the USDA via email and sent photographs to the agency, Hausman says that the company suspended her. She says that company officials who met with her the day that she was suspended had copies of photographs she had sent to the USDA. She says that she was formally terminated four months later, and she claims that she was fired because she had complained.

Lee Barron, Hausman’s attorney, said that the complaint speaks for itself, but it’s fair to say that Cargill was prepared to put unsafe products on the market.

“Cargill may dispute that, but that’s certainly what we think,” Barron said.

Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman, said that the company is aware of the lawsuit, but does not comment on active litigation. He noted that the Beardstown plant is inspected by the federal government.

“We have very specific rules and guidelines we operate by,” Martin said. “We are going to address these allegations in litigation.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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