Point of View

With lax enforcement, USDA failing in its humane killing mandate

May 28, 2014 


ROBERT WILLETT — Robert Willett

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General issued a scathing report, accusing the food safety division of the agency of not fulfilling or even understanding its legal obligations where humane slaughter enforcement is concerned.

Specifically, the OIG found that USDA does not meaningfully attempt to stop repeat violations of the Humane Slaughter Act and that many USDA inspectors do not even understand what is required of them. Even when OIG inspectors monitored their actions openly, inspectors still did not understand or carry out their humane slaughter mandate.

Records just obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Lewis & Clark Law School’s Animal Legal Clinic and my organization indicate that nothing has been done over the past year to improve the situation.

One of the most abusive slaughterhouses in the country sits in Gibsonville, a small town about 60 miles west of Raleigh. Routinely, Matkins Meat plant workers shot animals through the head with rifles or captive bolt guns, causing immense pain to the animals but not rendering them insensible.

As just one example, a cow was shot through the head with a captive bolt and then hoisted into the air, and then her throat was slit – all while she was still conscious. If USDA personnel had not intervened and demanded that plant personnel deliver another captive bolt to the animal’s skull, she would have been skinned and dismembered while still conscious.

One of the problems explicitly identified by USDA’s Office of the Inspector General in its report about slaughterhouse oversight was that inspectors were far too lenient and consistently violated USDA’s official policy both by neglecting to cite law-breaking plants at all and by neglecting to suspend plants for egregious abuse.

Both of these problems are documented in the FOIA records we received regarding the North Carolina plant. Though the plant was cited many times for violations of federal law, these citations resulted in just three very brief plant suspensions. At least five of eight “noncompliance reports” should have resulted in suspensions, according to USDA policy, and two documented examples of egregious violations of federal law did not even result in noncompliance reports.

For example, a terrified pig “was put into the knocking box, restrained with the squeeze gate, and shot (through the head) with a .17 HMR rifle.” The rifle bullet missed the animal’s brain, and the animal suffered horribly for 30 to 45 seconds before she could be put down. Remarkably, this same report indicates two almost identical scenarios in the preceding two weeks, none of which resulted in even a brief plant suspension.

But the USDA knows that these three instances of criminal activity should have resulted in suspensions of the plant, as indicated by the fact that the agency suspended the plant three other times over less than three months for almost identical violations.

Every one of these documented violations of federal law was a federal crime, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

My organization is calling on USDA to refer egregious cruelty to federal prosecutors, as the agency is statutorily empowered to do, and also to withdraw federal grants of inspection from repeat violators. USDA should start with this North Carolina plant, and unless it does, the agency should not be believed when it claims to take its humane slaughter mandate seriously.

Animals are suffering horrible abuse in our nation’s slaughterhouses, USDA is charged with stopping it, and it is past time the agency took these basic steps to do so.

Bruce Friedrich is director of policy and advocacy for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization.

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