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USDA Inspector General: Food Safety and Humane Slaughter Laws Ignored With Impunity

Repeat food safety violations are just the tip of the iceberg.
 
 
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Chinese workers process chicken meat at a Beijing meat production line in 2007. The United States announced Thursday it was asking the World Trade Organization to settle a dispute with China over Beijing's duties on US chicken imports.

 
 
 
 

Two weeks ago, the USDA's Office of the Inspector General released a report that, once again, proves that our food system is broken: First, the Food Safety and Insepection Service doesn't meaningfully attempt to stop repeat violations of food safety laws. Second, it has allowed a 15-year-old pilot program with faster slaughter and fewer inspectors to proceed without review. Third, it all but ignores its humane slaughter mandate. Remarkably, unless you read Food Safety News or the agricultural media, you will have missed this extremely damning report.

First, FSIS' food safety oversight system in pig slaughterhouses is completely broken. Out of 44,128 identified violations of food safety laws at 616 slaughterhouses over four years, there were just 28 plant suspensions, all brief. Over these same four years, FSIS didn't reach enforcement stage 5 or 6 even once. OIG offers some stomach-turning examples of illegal activity that warranted but did not receive suspension, including: 

  • At a South Carolina slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 800 violations, including fourteen for egregious violations like "fecal contamination on a hog after the final trim," almost 100 "for exposed or possibly adulterated products that had 'grease smears' or 'black colored liquid substance' on processed meat," and 43 for "pest control problems, such as cockroaches on the kill floor." This plant was not suspended even once.

  • At a Nebraska slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 600 violations, which included 50 repeat violations for "contaminated carcasses that included 'fecal material which was yellow [and] fibrous' on the carcass." FSIS never even reached enforcement stage three, notice of intended enforcement, let alone suspension.

  • At an Illinois slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 500 violations, including 26 repeat violations for "fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses." Yes, FSIS found fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses 26 times. Nevertheless, FSIS never even got to stage three on its 6-stage plan.
     

Second, fifteen years ago USDA approved a "pilot program" to speed slaughter lines and reduce inspector numbers in some plants, but it never bothered to see how the program is working. Remarkably, the slaughterhouse with the most violations was such a plant, "with nearly 50 percent more [violations] than the plant with the next highest number." One of these plants doesn't even require manual inspection of viscera, a requirement at the other 615 pig slaughter plants, because "some signs of disease and contamination can be detected only through a manual inspection. Examples include ... parasites within the intestine, and inflamed or degenerated organs that are unusually sticky to the touch or excessively firm."

Third, even top FSIS personnel don't understand what the Humane Slaughter Act requires of them. Decisions are "inconsistent, lenient, and endorsed by district officials." OIG officials visited just 30 plants, each for no more than 30 minutes, and yet they still witnessed multiple instances of animals regaining consciousness after "stunning," for which the inspector-in-charge chose not to issue a report (as was legally required). "If this occurred when our audit team and FSIS officials were present, we are concerned that this might be more prevalent when the plants and inspectors are not being observed." The OIG also reviewed violation reports for these 30 plants and found that of the 158 violations, there were 10 egregious violations that did not result in suspension, as is legally required. As just two examples:

  • At an Indiana slaughterhouse, a worker shot a pig through the head with a captive bolt, which "lodged in the hog's skull. The hog remained conscious and aware while the plant sent for another gun, which was about 2 minutes away. The second gun also appeared to misfire causing the hog to squeal, but it remained conscious and aware. The hog then managed to dislodge the first gun from its skull. Ultimately, a portable electric stunner had to be used to successfully render the hog unconscious. Following this incident, FSIS cited another violation for a hog regaining consciousness on the rail. The plant was not suspended for either egregious incident."

  • At a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse, "a hog that had been stunned and bled regained consciousness. The hog was able to right its head, make noise, kick, and splash water in reaction to being placed in a scalding tank." Yes, this poor animal was placed, throat slit open but conscious, into scalding hot water. "The inspector only issued an NR. The plant was not suspended."


Additionally, OIG interviewed 39 inspectors at the 30 plants they visited; one-third said they would not even issue a noncompliance report if they witnessed a conscious animal on the bleed rail (which legally requires suspension). OIG noted that similar inspector confusion regarding their basic legal obligations was clear in reports from GAO and OIG in 2010 and 2008, yet nothing has been done to rectify the situation.

Every year according to the CDC, there are tens of millions of cases of food poisoning, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths. The agency charged with reducing these numbers is doing, according to its Office of the Inspector General, a pathetically bad job.

Every year, roughly 150 million cattle and pigs are slaughtered in our nation's slaughterhouses, and the one measly law that attempts to ensure some small decrease in their abuse is all-but-ignored by the agency charged with enforcing it. Even their top personnel don't understand what it says.

Want to stop eating contaminated food and take a stand for compassion at the same time? Please consider eliminating meat from your diet.

Bruce Friedrich is Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives at Farm Sanctuary.

 
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