Whistleblower Reveals That Humane Slaughter of Animals Is Essential to Food Safety But Horrific Conditions Persist
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"When we turn our backs on the helpless, when we fail to speak on behalf of the voiceless, when we tolerate animal abuse and suffering, then the moral compass of a just and compassionate society is gone."
That's what Dr. Dean Wyatt, whistleblower and supervisory public health veterinarian for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy chaired by Congressman Dennis Kucinich on Thursday. The hearing was held in conjunction with the release of a Government Accountability Office report on enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which prohibits the inhumane treatment of livestock in slaughter plants.
By all accounts, Wyatt's life was hell under the previous administration. And while the Obama administration has taken some positive steps to strengthen enforcement of humane handling and food safety laws--and Wyatt told me his relationship with the new administration is improved--the verdict is still out on whether the USDA has the will or the ability to make the necessary changes for a safe and humane food system.
In 2007 and 2008, Wyatt tried to shut down Seaboard Farms, a hog slaughtering and processing plant in Oklahoma, for numerous egregious violations, including pigs "shackled on the slaughter line" while "awake and kicking rapidly" and "being stuck with a knife." Another had its throat slit. Partitions were erected so that inspectors couldn't view off-loading of livestock from trucks after Wyatt and other inspectors had observed pigs "being crushed" and trampled.
Time and again, Wyatt's supervisors sided with Seaboard, even telling him to "drastically cut back" on time spent on humane handling enforcement, and that "there was no way he could have seen" what he reported. Wyatt, who has served the USDA for over eighteen years and received numerous performance awards, was "berated" and transferred to the western Vermont region, where he was certain he wouldn't see the same kind of egregious behavior.
He was wrong. (WARNING: graphic video)
At Bushway Packing, Wyatt witnessed calves one to seven days old arriving by truck after being shipped for ten hours or more, unable to walk due to injury or weakness. He saw them dragged down unloading ramps by a hind leg, dragged through holding pens, even thrown like a football. Wyatt suspended operations three times, but each time the district office allowed the plant to reopen. After the owner complained that Wyatt "was harassing him," Wyatt was ordered to attend training for new public health veterinarians, which took him out of the plant for three weeks.
During Wyatt's exile, the Humane Society of the United States hired an undercover investigator to look into his allegations. Not only did the investigator corroborate Wyatt's findings but video footage revealed even more egregious behavior, including the skinning of a calf while it was alive and conscious and an inspector looked on.
Bushway was shut down by the current administration and is now under criminal investigation. But Wyatt's ordeal "emboldened plant management" and sent a clear message to other field inspectors. "Why would [inspectors] risk their jobs by writing too many noncompliance reports?" Wyatt asked.
Among the recommendations Wyatt offered the subcommittee is the need for an ombudsman's office, "so field inspectors have a place to go where they can report problems when they are not being supported by their supervisors." This still doesn't exist. He also emphasized a staffing shortage--inspectors are forced to spend 99 percent of their time on "carcass inspection," so they are unable to attend to other matters like humane handling. (Indeed, many of the fifteen inspection districts have double-digit vacancy rates for inspector positions. This is a funding issue and reports are that the administration is trying to obtain the resources it needs to fill the positions.) The GAO report also found that there is still unclear guidance on humane handling, inconsistency in enforcement, and that inspectors at a majority of plants say they need more training.