Whistleblower Reveals That Humane Slaughter of Animals Is Essential to Food Safety But Horrific Conditions Persist
"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.
Witnesses emphasized that this isn't just an ethical issue, this is a matter of food safety. Inhumane handling of "downer" animals--animals that can't stand or walk on their own but are shocked or carried to move them to their slaughter--pose greater health risks for human consumption.
"The downer animals roll around in feces and that can encourage or bring about e. coli," said Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and the Environment at the GAO.
"Data from Europe where people have died as a consequence of mad cow disease shows that nonambulatory cattle are 48 percent more likely to have Mad Cow Disease Than Ambulatory cattle," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
"If they are not following the humane handling practices, they are probably not following the food safety program," said Wyatt.
The GAO report also found that from 2005 to 2007, ten districts suspended thirty-five plants for HMSA violations. The remaining five districts--responsible for overseeing 56 percent of all livestock slaughtered nationwide--did not suspend any plants. Des Moines and Chicago rank number one and two, respectively, in volume of slaughters and didn't issue a suspension until February 2008.
Kucinich was interested in finding out what the new administration is doing to rectify the uneven enforcement and lack of support for inspectors.
Jerold Mande, deputy secretary for food safety at the USDA, said the department has created a new "humane handling enforcement coordinator" position, "responsible for providing consistent oversight of the field level humane handling activities." That would be an improvement, since the GAO noted that the noncompliance reports often don't rise from the district level to the departmental level. He also said the agency has hired twenty-three new inspectors assigned to "high-risk" plants. The administration also banned the slaughter of downed cows. (The Humane Society's Pacelle praised that action, but noted a troubling loophole that allows young calves to be set aside and re-examined.)
Shames said that while there are some positive steps being taken, FSIS does "not clearly outline goals, needed resources, time frames or performance metrics" and lacks "a comprehensive strategy to guide HMSA enforcement." If the administration wants to signal a real seriousness of purpose it should develop that kind of integrated and comprehensive approach to enforcement.
Kucinich also wanted Mande to issue a public apology on behalf of the USDA to Wyatt in order to show a commitment to rigorous inspection.
"There is no better way for you to signal to all of the inspection staff, supervisors, and district management that you are committed to leading FSIF in a new direction," said Kucinich, "than if you would now take this opportunity to publicly commit to embracing individuals like Dr. Wyatt who at great risk reported abuses by the industry and even government. Will you do that?"
Mr. Mande said the USDA has begun an investigation to look into Mr. Wyatt's charges but he didn't offer an apology.
"Why won't you address how he was disparaged?" asked Kucinich. "That concerns me. You're sending mixed signals here, Mr. Mande."
After the hearing I asked Wyatt about his current relationship with the USDA. He said he had a "great talk" with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and is "really encouraged."
I also spoke with Pacelle about his take on the new administration and whether it will make some significant changes on enforcing humane handling.
"We have enough reason to feel hopeful, but we're not getting out the party hats," said Pacelle. "This is a big bureaucratic agency. Historically they've been very close to the livestock industry. They've been promoters and not regulators of the industry. And it's been very difficult for them to see their way to an independent regulatory responsibility. Secretary Vilsack is the guy that has the strength to do it and we hope that he will."