Testimony by a federal veterinarian and a new Government Accountability Office report charge that the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has been lax in its enforcement of humane slaughter standards.
Dr. Dean C. Wyatt is an FSIS supervisory public health veterinarian based in Vermont. He testified March 5 before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee's Domestic Policy Subcommittee about the violations against livestock he witnessed while working as an inspector for the agency.
Animal technician Gary Nowling loads a calf onto a trailer
during a study to determine the effects of transportation
stress and its relation to calf age. The Department of
Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has been
criticized for not properly enforcing humane slaughter standards.
His appearance came a day after the GAO released a report titled "Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: weaknesses in USDA enforcement." It said unclear guidance and training by FSIS leadership has resulted in inconsistent application of federal slaughter guidelines.
The USDA and industry experts maintain that most of the 150 million head of livestock that are processed each year in inspected facilities are humanely slaughtered. At the hearing, the USDA pledged it would respond to the GAO report while continuing its existing efforts to improve enforcement of animal-handling practices in slaughter facilities.
Taking the stand
Dr. Wyatt, an 18-year veteran with the FSIS, began working at Seaboard Farms, a large hog slaughtering and processing plant in Guymon, Okla., in March 2007 as an FSIS supervisor during the night shift.
In his prepared testimony, Dr. Wyatt described finding pigs shackled on the slaughter line that were "awake and kicking rapidly." Multiple times he saw pigs that were being aggressively unloaded from trucks falling down while others "were trampling the prone animals who were vocalizing and being crushed by the weight of those animals coming off the truck."
In about a year's time, Dr. Wyatt documented about six events. In most instances, he filed a noncompliance report, suspended inspection operations, or communicated with his superiors in the FSIS district office.
Dr. Wyatt said his concerns were often met with indifference or rebuke; he was eventually transferred to Bushway Packing in Grand Isle, Vt.
There, too, the veterinarian claims to have witnessed violations of food safety and humane slaughter regulations. Dr. Wyatt said plant staff shot cows multiple times in the head before the animals died. Another time, he witnessed animal handlers grabbing a nonambulatory calf by a hind leg and dragging it down an unloading ramp.
The veterinarian's reports of abuse were later corroborated by the Humane Society of the United States. The animal rights group hired an undercover investigator last year to look into his allegations of wrongdoing at Bushway Packing (see JAVMA, Dec. 15, 2009).
State and federal agriculture authorities suspended operations at the slaughter plant, and a criminal investigation focusing on misconduct seen in the video continues. Peter Langrock, a Middlebury, Vt., lawyer who represents Bushway, told the Associated Press that company officials had worked to correct problems, and they hope to reopen the facility and enter into a consent decree with the USDA to settle the criminal investigation.
Rules and regulations
The March 5 congressional hearing was called to examine the findings of a GAO report on USDA enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This follow-up report had been requested by the House subcommittee in 2008, four years after the GAO released a similar report (see JAVMA
, May 15, 2004
The GAO surveyed FSIS inspectors-in-charge at 257 livestock slaughter plants from May through July 2009. GAO staff also examined a sample of FSIS noncompliance reports, suspension data, and district veterinary medical specialist reports in all 15 of FSIS' district offices for fiscal years 2005 through 2009.
In the interviews, inspectors gave a variety of responses when asked what enforcement actions they would take when faced with a violation of humane handling requirements. For example, no more than 40 percent of inspectors could agree on two questions regarding the appropriate use of electrical prodding by plant employees.
In fact, inspectors-in-charge at more than half the plants surveyed reported that additional FSIS guidance or training is needed on whether a specific incident of electrical prodding requires an enforcement action.
The answers were supported by the GAO's review of noncompliance reports, which identified instances when inspectors did not suspend plant operations or take regulatory actions when they appeared warranted. The study said a lack of consistency in enforcement may be attributable to a lack of clarity in FSIS guidance and inadequate training.
The survey also pointed out that the FSIS cannot fully identify trends in its funding and staffing for HMSA inspections. This is because it cannot track inspection funds spent on the HMSA separately from those spent on food safety activities.
Finally, the GAO criticized the FSIS for not having a current workforce planning strategy for allocating limited staff to inspection activities. The agency does have strategic, operational, and performance plans for its inspection activities, but they do not provide a comprehensive strategy to guide HMSA enforcement, according to the report.
The GAO recommended, among other things, that the FSIS take actions to strengthen its oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities.
A rare occurrence
Dr. Christopher Chase, chair of the AVMA Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee, reviewed testimony from the hearing and said he doesn't doubt that there are bad actors in the meatpacking business.
A look at the FSIS
The FSIS is responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products is safe and accurately labeled and packaged.
The agency enforces the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which was the topic of the Congressional hearing March 5.
The FSIS employs more than 9,500 staff, including around 7,800 full-time, in-plant and other front-line personnel protecting the public health in approximately 6,200 federally inspected establishments nationwide.
These inspection personnel are present at all livestock slaughter operations to inspect each animal before slaughter and each carcass after slaughter. FSIS inspectors also inspect each processing facility at least once per shift. In fiscal year 2009, agency staff inspected 150 million head of livestock and 9 billion head of poultry.
—Source: Jerold Mande, Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety at the Department of Agriculture
"Unfortunately, what happens is the worst-case scenario is perceived by some as the industry standard. In my experience I have not seen the scenarios outlined in Dr. Wyatt's testimony, but I certainly believe they do happen. However, I do not believe they represent the norm," Dr. Chase said.
Dr. Terry W. Lehenbauer, also a member of the Animal Agriculture Committee and of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said his impression was that most facilities and their inspectors were being diligent in following proper procedures and in complying with regulations pertaining to humane slaughter.
He said given that 150 million head of livestock are slaughtered each year, it is inevitable that there will be instances when humane handling and slaughter are not achieved because of unintentional errors or other unavoidable situations.
"The most important concerns pertain to those situations when animal welfare is compromised because conscious decisions are being made along the line of responsibility, from plant management to inspection personnel, that allows egregious violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to occur," Dr. Lehenbauer said.
In any case, he emphasized that any failure to conform to the HMSA is unacceptable.
"Consumers must have confidence that every reasonable effort is being applied to ensure that all livestock are being treated in a humane manner at processing facilities," he said.
Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said the USDA does have well-established policies and guidelines for the humane treatment of animals in the food chain as well as the ability and resources to respond to violations and take corrective action.
In the aftermath
In commenting on a draft of the GAO report, the USDA did not say whether it agreed with the findings or recommendations but did indicate it plans to use them in improving efforts to enforce the HMSA.
Jerold Mande, deputy undersecretary for food safety with the USDA, testified at the hearing about existing measures the department is enforcing and future measures it will put into place to ensure compliance with the HMSA.
For one, the FSIS recently added an additional 23 inspection positions and assigned them to higher-risk establishments to boost humane handling oversight and verification inspection activities, according to Mande's testimony.
The FSIS is also working to fill the newly created position of humane handling enforcement coordinator. This person will be responsible for providing consistent oversight of the field-level humane handling activities and will play a key role in the humane handling enforcement and verification activities of the department.
Late in 2009, the FSIS unveiled the "Humane Handling and Slaughter Verification Tool." It is designed to create an objective system that helps determine whether there are problems in a facility's humane handling and slaughter system that need to be addressed.
The tool allows district veterinary medical specialists to record antemortem observations, such as the number of times livestock slip and fall while going through the stunning chute area or the number of times an electric prod is used on the animals. Percentages are calculated and compared with minimum acceptable scores as suggested by animal scientist Temple Grandin, PhD.
The improvements come atop efforts to strengthen the FSIS' verification and enforcement related to the HMSA after the massive 2008 beef recall resulting from abusive handling of dairy cows at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in California (see JAVMA, March 15, 2008).
One such measure was the issuance of a final rule in March 2009 to amend federal meat inspection regulations to require a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle that become nonambulatory after initial inspection by FSIS personnel (see JAVMA, July 1, 2008).
To improve its data collection and analysis, Mande said, the FSIS will launch the Public Health Information System later this year. The system will integrate a variety of relevant data streams so that the FSIS may provide ongoing, real-time assessment, analysis, and surveillance of public health, food defense, and humane handling data.
In the near future, the FSIS intends to issue compliance guidelines to industry for the use of video or other electronic monitoring or recording equipment, in response to recommendations from the USDA Office of the Inspector General, and to seek public comment on the guidelines. Mande said the department will encourage facilities to consider using such monitoring to maintain humane handling and compliance with regulatory and statutory requirements.