State and federal agriculture authorities suspended operations at a Vermont slaughter plant and called for criminal investigations after the Humane Society of the United States released video that appears to depict workers kicking, repeatedly shocking, and ineffectively stunning calves prior to slaughter.
"The callous behavior and attitudes displayed in the video clearly appear to be violations of USDA's humane handling regulations," Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.
The Humane Society posted the video Oct. 30 at www.hsus.org and said the HSUS investigator recorded the footage while working as a floor cleaner in August and September at Bushway Packing in Grand Isle, Vt. The organization is calling for bans on the slaughter of all downer veal calves and on the transport of calves less than 10 days old.
Adrian Gianforti, spokesman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, said all nonambulatory cattle must be condemned, with the exception of veal calves unable to rise and walk because they are tired or cold. Those animals can be held separately for treatment under FSIS supervision.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the HSUS Factory Farming campaign, said his organization investigated the slaughterhouse after it was shut down three times in 2009. Gianforti said the plant operations were suspended in May, June, and July following accusations involving inhumane treatment at slaughter.
The HSUS video also appears to show a USDA-FSIS inspector failing to report workers acting improperly. Gianforti declined to say whether the inspector still works for the USDA.
Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said that the animal abuse seen in the video is unacceptable, and that the actions of the few people who engage in such abuse should be reported immediately. He noted the HSUS had the footage more than a month before it was released, which allowed the abuse to continue.
Shapiro said the abuse had been occurring in front of the USDA, and the HSUS immediately reviewed the video, submitted it to animal behaviorists for comments, and sent the video and comments to state and federal authorities. Those authorities received the video Oct. 27, he said.
Dr. Riddell noted that the release was just before the Nov. 3 vote on an Ohio ballot initiative, the passage of which will create a panel of agriculture stakeholders, veterinarians, and consumers who will determine state animal welfare standards. He said AABP Animal Welfare Committee members were concerned the delay suggested HSUS did not have the animals' best interest at heart.
But Shapiro said there is no connection between the video's release and the initiative in Ohio. The HSUS spent no money on advertising to oppose the initiative, which the organization viewed as empty but not inherently harmful.
Dr. Riddell said that a veterinarian who becomes aware of animal abuseshould notify the plant operators, producers that supply the plant, or industry association members who provide oversight to correct the problems. If the abuses are not quickly corrected, the veterinarian should consider contacting regulatory authorities or, as a last resort, law enforcement.
Private veterinarians are not regulators, Dr. Riddell said, but they are animal welfare experts, and they cannot sit on the sidelines when they see abuse. Those practitioners know when animals are suffering, and they have assumed a major role in caring for animals raised for food.
Shapiro said allowing the slaughter of certain downer calves encourages slaughter plant operators "to force these animals on to the kill floor." And, he said, calves less than 10 days old are not strong enough to endure long-distance transportation.
The AABP does not have a position on the HSUS proposal regarding downers calves, Dr. Riddell said. Asked about the HSUS proposal to ban transport of calves less than 10 days old, he said an age-based rule would be impractical and ineffective at improving animal welfare, so long as all calves are dry, their navels have been disinfected, they are able to stand unassisted, and they have had their first milk prior to shipment.