USDA Moving at Full Speed…Backward
“Not small bits, but chunks.”
That’s the amount of fecal matter that ends up on carcasses from a New Zealand slaughter plant that exports to the United States, according to the head of the inspectors’ union. The company that owns the plant is responsible for its own inspections. Now, the Washington Post reports on page one, meatpacking plants on our own soil are on the verge of adopting a similar program and policing themselves. It marks a major step backwards in meat industry oversight in the United States.
Of all the federal agencies, none has quite the level of authority or responsibility for animal welfare than the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tasked with overseeing the majority of federal laws that relate to animal welfare, the department has seemed to bend over backward to accommodate the industries it is charged with overseeing. USDA’s own Office of Inspector General has issued a series of damning reports within the last decade on the agency’s failures to enforce minimum standards of protection for animals in laboratories, slaughterhouse lines, puppy mills and horses.
The IG condemned a USDA-approved industry self-regulation program in place at shows for Tennessee walking horses. It took an undercover HSUS investigation to expose soring abuses by a Hall of Fame trainer in that industry to prove that self-regulation hasn’t stopped the cruel practice of soring.
The Post’s front page story shows the USDA apparently hasn’t heeded the lessons from the debacle over horse show inspections, even as the agency itself has stepped up enforcement and strengthened penalties for horse abuse at shows.
The Post also reports that pilot self-inspection programs in pig slaughter plants have been anything but promising, with the test plants ranking among the worst in the nation on health and safety violations. In Canada and New Zealand, similar programs have led to “a rash of problems” in the past two years.
In the United States, the situation isn’t much better, even when government inspectors are present to do their jobs. I’ve written in the past about the late USDA whistleblower Dean Wyatt, who was instrumental in helping to stop particularly heinous abuses of farm animals, despite USDA resistance. Now, agency inspectors speaking with The Post report that they still face substantial backlash over doing anything to get in the way of the companies they’re supposed to be regulating. In a June story, the Kansas City Star’s Mike McGraw wrote about retaliation on USDA inspectors by line managers, and how the humane handling and slaughter laws were being unevenly enforced. If it’s that bad with USDA oversight, how much will minimal protections further erode with industry being judge and jury?
The Post reports that “Several said company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about inadequate safety checks.”
With the USDA proposing to essentially deregulate inspections at turkey, pork and chicken plants by allowing them to control a good portion of the oversight, it doesn’t portend good things to come – either for animals or American consumers.