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July 02, 2013

Problems with USDA Oversight at Slaughter Plants

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McGraw of the Kansas City Star wrote a front-page story this past weekend about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s failure to consistently enforce federal animal welfare laws at slaughter plants, particularly for pigs. In addition to recounting details of a recent USDA Office of Inspector General Audit about abuses of pigs at plants, he breaks the news about a USDA federal inspector being transferred after he blew the whistle on abuse at a Tyson slaughter plant in Iowa. The article gives a broad picture of the hurdles faced by some good inspectors who try to enforce the law. The McGraw exposé, combined with The HSUS’ own investigations, does not instill confidence that the USDA is up to the task of minimizing pain and distress for animals at slaughter plants – including the horses who may end up at facilities in several states, a result of the agency’s recent decision to allow horse-killing for meat.

You may remember Dr. Dean Wyatt, a food safety inspector who blew the whistle on cruelty to calves at a Vermont slaughter plant. An HSUS undercover investigation at the plant confirmed the horrendous treatment of these infant calves, some so young they still had their umbilical cords hanging from their bodies. Sadly, this courageous man died not long after he testified before Congress about the lack of enforcement action when it comes to violations of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. And now it seems that the lack of attention to animal welfare and food safety violations is ongoing.

Pigs
Narvikk/iStockphoto

According to the Kansas City Star, another courageous USDA inspector – Jim Schrier – has come forward, calling out Tyson’s huge Columbus Junction, Iowa pig slaughter plant for its inhumane slaughter practices – like conscious pigs being shackled and hoisted in violation of federal  law and USDA’s own regulations – which the USDA is charged with enforcing. The story recounts unlawful retaliation by the USDA for not allowing this inspector to do his job by documenting the violations. You may recall that in 2012 at the behest of Big Ag, Iowa passed an Ag-Gag bill, making it impossible for animal welfare groups to conduct investigations there. So the only thing standing between pigs and inhumane deaths are the handful of USDA inspectors on the lines.

Mr. Schrier, a 29-year veteran of the USDA, fought to make Tyson abide by the federal humane slaughter law and, just like Dean Wyatt, he has experienced retaliation. Schrier has been transferred out of the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction and ordered to work at another plant two hours from his home. Schrier now works an 11 hour shift with a two hour commute before and after every shift – a 15 hour workday.

When we reviewed slaughter violation reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, we noticed that the Columbus Junction plant had not incurred a violation since 2010. That’s particularly curious and almost impossible to fathom given that other Tyson plants have been written up for serious violations of the HMSA, and the details are enough to make you sick at heart. Like this January 2013 incident documented by a USDA inspector in Tyson’s Logansport, Ind., slaughter plant in which a worker attempted to kill a pig not healthy enough for slaughter using a captive bolt gun:

“The hog dropped to a kneeling position, immediately began to squeal loudly, and crawl away from the stunner operator. RPHV [redacted] observed blood coming from the hog’s nose. Mr. [redacted] reloaded the captive bolt gun… He proceeded to discharge a second shot into the same area on the head of the hog. The hog immediately dropped into a kneeling position and continued to squeal. The hog rose and attempted to ambulate away from the area. Approximately 30 to 60 seconds afterwards, the hog was placed into the bucket of a bobcat, facilitating restraint. An additional employee placed his hands on the side of the hog. At this time, a third attempt to stun the hog was made. The hog was effectively stunned on this third attempt.”

The USDA may be authorizing horse slaughter plants to operate in Iowa, Missouri, and New Mexico. With all the ongoing problems related to the agency’s existing humane handling and food safety programs, it’s impossible to explain why the USDA would spread itself even thinner by adding a new horse slaughter inspection program. Americans don’t eat horse meat, and such a program would come at the expense of animal welfare and public health for U.S. consumers. It’s clear that the USDA needs to conduct a thorough investigation into what’s happening at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and take a stern-minded, serious approach to humane slaughter violations.

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