WASHINGTON -- The United States has intervened in a civil lawsuit against two former suppliers to the National School Lunch Program – Hallmark Meat Packing Company and Westland Meat Company Inc. – for submitting false and fraudulent claims to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Justice Department announced today. All ground beef containing defendants’ products was recalled by USDA as of Feb. 16, 2008, and defendants no longer supply beef to the National School Lunch Program or AMS.
The National School Lunch Program is a federally-assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The program, established under the National School Lunch Act in 1946, provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
The suit was originally filed by the Humane Society of the United States under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act (FCA). In its complaint, the Humane Society alleges that defendants knowingly and falsely represented to AMS that all cattle at their slaughtering facility are humanely handled in accordance with federal regulations and that no meat from disabled, non-ambulatory cattle was included in AMS’ purchases.
"The alleged misrepresentations by Hallmark and Westland could have impacted the health of many of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens--our schoolchildren," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. "Our intervention in this case demonstrates how seriously we will pursue allegations such as these."
Under qui tam statute, a private party, known as a "relator," can file an action on behalf of the United States and receive a portion of the recovery. Under the FCA, the government is entitled to treble damages plus civil penalties ranging from $5,500 to $11,000 per violation.
The Department’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California will pursue the case. The government plans to file an amended complaint. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General investigated the matter.