USDA: We’re Doing a Heckuva Job!

pigs You might wonder with the reports in the past 2 years of horrific animal abuse such as at the California Westland-Hallmark Co., Bushway Packing Co. in Vermont or the mis-named Country View Family Farms in Pennsylvania, whether anyone is taking action to stop this and enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

Here is what has happened.

The Government Accountability Office has released 3 reports, of their investigations. GAO, Humane Methods of Handling and Slaughter: Public Reporting on Violations Can Identify Enforcement Challenges and Enhance Transparency, GAO-08-686T was released on Apr. 17, 2008. The second, GAO, Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Actions Are Needed to Strengthen Enforcement, GAO-10-203 was issued last month on Feb. 19, 2010. The most recent was released last week during a March 4 hearing by the Domestic Policy Subcommittee chaired by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich. It is entitled "Weaknesses in USDA Enforcement" of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, GAO-10-487T and is attached below for downloading.

In 2004 GAO found the most frequent violation noted by inspectors in slaughter houses was ineffective stunning, meaning "in many cases ..a conscious animal reach[ed] slaughter" in violation of Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 USCS § 1902(a); 9 C.F. R. §313.15, 9 C.F.R. §313.50(c). GAO also noted there had been no effort made to stop the ineffective stunning and the records kept by inspectors were so poor, it was impossible to tell even by 2008 that there had been any improvement. See GAO-04-247, GAO-08-686T

In the Mar. 4, 2010 report GAO summarizes, "In 2004, we recommended that FSIS establish additional clear, specific, and consistent criteria for district offices to use when considering whether to take enforcement actions because of repeat violations. FSIS agreed with this recommendation and delegated to the districts the responsibility for determining how many repeat violations should result in a suspension. However, incidents such as those at the slaughter plants in California and in Vermont suggest that this delegation was not successful. To date, FSIS has not issued additional guidance".

The latest report found disparities and inconsistencies in enforcement by Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors who are responsible for enforcing the HMSA. FSIS inspectors admittedly tolerated electric prodding far more than 50 out of 100 animals, the threshold considered excessive by Dr. Temple Grandin. Inspectors usually failed to issue a non-compliance report or regulatory action which would prohibit the use of the prod until the "equipment is made acceptable to the inspector" and never suspending plant operations.

The GAO notes, "Similarly, our analysis …shows inconsistency in the actions inspectors took in response to excessive beating or prodding. FSIS guidance … states that excessive beating or prodding of ambulatory or nonambulatory disabled animals is egregious abuse-and may therefore warrant suspension of plant operations. From inspectors’ noncompliance reports, we identified several specific incidents in which inspectors did not either take a regulatory control action or suspend plant operations.

"Incomplete guidance and inadequate training may contribute to the inconsistent enforcement of HMSA…. [I]nspectors 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. In addition, of the 80 inspectors who provided detailed responses to our survey, 15 noted the need for additional guidance, including clarification on what actions constitute egregious actions. Similarly, 25 of the 80 inspectors who provided written comments identified a need for additional training in several key areas." (emphasis added.)…

cowIn its Mar. 4, 2010 report the GAO points out that according to FSIS officials, "for the most part, inspectors are to devote 80 percent of their time to food safety inspection activities and 20 percent of their time to humane handling inspection and other activities.

"However, our analysis of resources shows that this is not the case. We estimated that the percentage of funds dedicated to HMSA enforcement has been about 1 percent of FSIS’s total annual inspection appropriation, although it rose slightly in 2008, when FSIS directed the inspectors to increase the amount of time they devoted to humane handling, following the 2008 incident in California.

"For fiscal year 2010, FSIS officials told us, they planned to use $2 million of their inspection funds to enhance oversight of humane handling enforcement by hiring 24 inspectors, including both public health veterinarians and inspectors. FSIS officials planned to strategically place these additional inspectors at locations where they are most needed to support humane handling enforcement in addition to their other food safety responsibilities.

"While FSIS has increased its hiring, it has not done so in the context of an updated strategic workforce plan. Such a plan would help FSIS align its workforce with its mission and ensure that the agency has the right people in the right place performing the right work to achieve the agency’s goals. In February 2009, we reported that the FSIS veterinarian workforce had decreased by nearly 10 percent since fiscal year 2003 and that the agency had not been fully staffed over the past decade.4 We reported that, as of fiscal year 2008, FSIS had a 15 percent shortage of veterinarians. The majority of these veterinarians work in slaughter plants, and these plants ranged from no vacancy to 35 percent of their veterinarian positions vacant. The FSIS 2007 strategic workforce plan-the most recently available-identifies specific actions to help the agency address some of the gaps in recruiting and retaining these mission-critical occupations over time. However, it does not address specific workforce needs for HMSA enforcement activities.

"…[M]ore than one-third of the inspectors who provided written comments in our survey noted the need for additional staff or the lack of time to perform humane handling activities. …

"Although FSIS has strategic, operational, and performance plans for its inspection activities, these plans do not specifically address HMSA enforcement. …Specifically, FSIS Strategic Plan FY 2008 through FY 2013 provides an overview of the agency’s major strategic goals and the means to achieve those goals. However, this plan does not clearly articulate or list goals related to HMSA enforcement. …FSIS Office of Field Operations officials agreed that the plan does not specifically address humane handling, but, they explained, the operational plans and policy performance plans contain the details concerning humane handling performance. However, we did not find that these two plans provide a comprehensive strategy for HMSA enforcement."

The GAO recommends that "FSIS take actions to strengthen its oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities and develop an integrated strategy that clearly defines goals, identifies resources needed, and establishes time frames and performance metrics specifically for enforcing HMSA."

How many times does GAO have to tell FSIS to do its job and enforce the HMSA?

Dr. Dean Wyatt, a supervisory public health veterinarian for FSIS, was also critical of FSIS in testimony before the committee: "When upper-level FSIS management looks the other way as food safety or humane slaughter laws are broken, or, as has been my experience, retaliates against people who are enforcing those laws, then management is just as guilty for breaking those laws as are the establishments. The laws are there. The enforcement of those laws – in my experience – has not been there and, in fact, has been willfully ignored by well-paid public officials. I cannot emphasize this fact enough – public servants like me who take our public trust very seriously and who may even endure personal trauma in order to fulfill that trust are being thwarted in our law enforcement efforts by people who have taken that same public oath to enforce the law. It seems almost unbelievable to me, but I have been ignored by my own people and have suffered physically, emotionally, and financially in the process. More importantly, animal welfare and food safety have suffered as well."

pigsDr. Wyatt added, "People have asked me why I would risk ruining my career by testifying. I would respond by quoting Abraham Lincoln who said ‘to sin by silence, when one must protest, makes cowards of men.’ I am not a coward…and I will not be silent. I truly believe that the USDA inspector is the only advocate animals have in slaughter plants. 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.

"I must admit that I feel somewhat like Don Quixote here because I have been in the trenches, I have fought the battles, I have the dents in my armor – only the dents in my armor have not come from plant management, they have come from upper-level FSIS management…I am a law enforcement officer. The public has entrusted me to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act."

Dr. Wyatt then detailed his experiences at FSIS where he saw egregious abuses ignored by FSIS such as those discovered by the Humane Society of the U.S. at Westland/Hallmark and Bushway and which included horrific incidents of pigs slaughtered while conscious and baby animals subjected to slaughter, animals hit with electric prods, dragged and abused. He painted a picture of poorly trained, callous slaughter plant workers and an indifferent FSIS management that basically hid reports of abuse from the public and retaliated against anyone reporting violations or mismanagement. (Dr. Wyatt’s testimony is attached below for downloading.)

FSIS to itself: "You’re doing a heckuva job!"

It is telling that prior to this hearing USDA officials expressed confidence that things have changed with a new administration, that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack oversees a much different agency. But in testimony before the subcommittee on March 4, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Jerold R. Mande said that the agency’s Office of Inspector General had determined that there was no "systemic failure" here, that the abuse uncovered at the  Westland-Hallmark Co., was an isolated incident. And as for the gross abuses of veal cattle at Bushway Packing Co. in Vermont, Mande said, well, Secy. Vilsack has said he disapproves of that and other agencies are investigating. Mande did not mention the terrible torture of pigs found at Country View Family Farms in Pennsylvania.

Mande told the subcommittee that FSIS has recently provided additional guidance to veterinarians, analyzed non-compliance, developed a new report and is evaluating video monitoring. It’s all fixed and everything is fine, according to Mande. He spent most of his testimony trying to discredit the GAO report.

Mande sounded more like President George W. Bush when he publicly hailed then FEMA Director Michael Brown in the midst of FEMA’s paralysis and ineptitude following Hurricane Katrina, "You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!"

Other witnesses agree with GAO 

Stan Painter, Chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions (NJC) which is affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, AFLCIO, testified that there are problems in enforcing the HMSA. Painter said enforcement was "not a priority" for FSIS and there was "inadequate staffing" and "confusion". As Painter put it, "There are too few eyes looking at too many animals going to slaughter…There are just not enough inspection personnel to keep up with the volume of livestock going to slaughter to enforce all of the food safety laws and regulations. We are still experiencing staffing shortages in various parts of the country. …

"But even if we had 100 percent staffing, I am not sure if we would still be able to enforce all of our food safety laws the way they should be. The agency claimed that there was a full complement of staffing at Hallmark/Westland when that situation came to light, yet the facility management was able to game the system and abused animals in order to squeeze every last penny for the bottom line. There are some slaughter facilities in this country that are processing cattle at 390 head per hour and hogs at 1106 head per hour. At that rate of production, we would need to increase the number of inspectors assigned to be able to enforce all of laws and regulations adequately."

Painter also told the subcommittee, "As result of concern expressed by Congress in 2001 about the enforcement of the HMSA and armed with additional appropriations to enforce it, the agency hired District Veterinary Medical Specialists (DVMS) who are responsible for acting as a resource to inspection personnel in each of the 15 FSIS districts on the HMSA. While that was a positive step, in reality, we rarely see these district veterinary medical specialists visiting plants. They are rarely in the field. We are also hamstrung by our supervisors who are either not qualified to do their jobs, unwilling to let us do our jobs, or who are not committed to making animal welfare a priority – either in FSISregulated facilities or in their private lives."

Rep. Kucinich echoed that GAO’s findings were significant. He said that his subcommittee has found that USDA’s belief that these abuses are isolated incidents, is "not based on actual evidence." Rep. Kucinich elaborated, "In fact in November 2008, the Inspector General found that FSIS had been in the slaughter plant where those scenes of abuse were recorded and found no problems, just months before the video was shot. The Inspector General also found that in a number of plants similar to the one in California, severe gaps in oversight and enforcement existed.

"For instance, FSIS inspectors "allowed establishment employees to control the required accountability process’ at 5 of 10 facilities audited:

"At one establishment, "the inspector simply re-signed blank pen cards and provided these to establishment personnel for later use’;

"At 4 of 10 establishments, inspectors did not inspect the condition of individual animals. Instead, "animals moved past the inspector in rows or groups of 3-4 animals deep, effectively obscuring the observation of potential injuries and abnormalities of each animal’;

"At 2 of 10 establishments, "suspect animals were not segregated and slaughtered separately from healthy animals as required’

"Then again last October, undercover investigators of the Humane Society caught employees at the Bushway Packing slaughter plant in Vermont on tape committing extreme abuse of veal calves. Scenes like those depicted in the Humane Society undercover video are egregious violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act."

Rep. Kucinich summarized, "What GAO has found is significant: Serious management problems at FSIS persist and compromise both the enforcement of HMSA and the ability of the department to change course. Key mechanisms of management oversight of inspection staff are missing. Key guidance to inspection staff making clear to them what constitutes a violation is missing.

"Consistency in the application of the law and assessing violations is missing: substantial differences exist among the regions. Considerable disagreement exists among the enforcement staff about what kinds of abuses constitute violations, and what enforcement actions need to be taken in response.

"The truth of the matter is, we do not know how prevalent are the abuses documented by the Humane Society, and neither does USDA, because of the significant deficiencies in the management of FSIS identified by GAO."

What’s Next?

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, offered the subcommittee these solutions:

1.  The USDA is creating a new position in its Washington headquarters, a Humane Handling Enforcement Coordinator who will oversee the work of veterinarians and provide "accountability, greater consistency, and enhanced enforcement efforts across regions". Hopefully.

2.  Establish an "independent ombudsman to provide inspectors with an avenue to take their concerns and grievances, and help ensure that they are able to carry out their responsibilities."

3. Organize a mobile review team "to conduct unscheduled audits and undercover surveillance focused on assessing compliance with humane handling rules of live animals as they arrive and are offloaded and handled in pens, chutes, and stunning areas."

4. "Fire any inspectors who flout their obligations to report clear animal abuse."

5. The FSIS’s plans "a transition to a more integrated computer system" which should allow access to all reports of inspections and violations for each slaughter facility.

6.  The USDA must "close the downer calf loophole, which allows downer calves to be set aside and reevaluated for possible slaughter. That loophole perpetuates the economic incentives for workers to mistreat calves in cruel attempts to get them on their feet so they can be approved for slaughter. While the Obama Administration did close the downer cattle loophole in March 2009, …it has not yet addressed an exemption for veal calves that remains from a July 2007 regulation under the Bush Administration. 9 C.F.R. § 309.13(b)".

7. "End the transport of baby calves to slaughter, similar to existing regulations in the European Union. Calves less than 10 days old should not be considered fit for transport, since they are ill-equipped to handle the trauma of transport to slaughter plants. Those who survive the trip arrive weak, malnourished and often unable to stand, leading to increased rates of disease and death and leaving them more vulnerable to abuse. We note that bob veal calves generally sell for just $10-20 each, according to figures provided by FSIS Administrator Al Almanza".

8. The USDA should stop excluding chickens, turkeys, and other poultry – who constitute approximately 95% of all farm animals slaughtered for food in the U.S. (9 billion birds per year) – from the modest protections of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Chickens and turkeys at slaughter plants are typically collected manually by workers at an intense pace (up to 180 birds a minute) and shackled upside down by their legs on a fast-moving mechanized line. Still conscious, they are dragged through an electrified water tank designed to immobilize them, passed through a neck-slicer, and dropped into scalding water to loosen their feathers. Due to the speed of the assembly line and their own desperate motions, millions of birds – according to USDA statistics – evade both the immobilization tank and the neck-slicer and literally drown in tanks of scalding water. The agency should require and help guide an industry transition to Controlled Atmosphere Killing methods that, when done using a proper mix of gases, can provide a more humane end and also yield higher productivity (e.g., fewer broken bones) and fewer worker injuries from repetitive stress."

9. The "USDA should also require that when gas is used to stun pigs, more humane gas mixtures be utilized. Use of CO2 alone – as is the current practice – is highly aversive and causes unacceptable suffering, as pigs suffocate rather than first losing consciousness."

6 thoughts on “USDA: We’re Doing a Heckuva Job!”

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