A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals

As a shuttered slaughterhouse reopens, attention is drawn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's responsibility to ensure humane standards while still promoting production.

grill-615.jpgAndrew Czap/Flickr

Operations resumed last week at a major California slaughterhouse, shuttered the week prior by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials after an undercover animal rights activist revealed heinous acts of animal cruelty and potential food safety risks. Though the USDA found "disturbing" violations of humane handling requirements, new standards imposed on the plant offer little reassurance that things will be done differently going forward. It's the latest example of USDA inspectors being caught either asleep at the wheel or actively complicit in egregious animal cruelty, begging the question: what is the USDA doing to enforce humane standards?

Central Valley Meat, of Hanford, CA, specializes in processing "spent" dairy cows - cows too old or worn out to be profitably milked. Until last week, the plant's clients included McDonalds, Burger King, Costco, Jack in the Box, In-n-Out Burger, and the USDA itself, which gave it nearly $50 million to supply the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs last year.

"Why would they risk their jobs by writing too many noncompliance reports?"

Two weeks ago, those customers all suspended business with the company after undercover video provided by the animal welfare group Compassion Over Killing revealed what the USDA described in a statement as "disturbing evidence of inhumane treatment." The footage shows an apparent proliferation of non-ambulatory or "downer" cows -- a reportedly common problem in the dairy slaughter industry. As a prominent trade journalist recently explained, "cows are bred and managed to maximize production, [and] the result is far too many animals that end their 'careers' as milk producers weak, worn out and often struggling to remain ambulatory during transport to the increasingly few, distant cow plants."

Federal law forbids slaughterhouses from receiving downers due to concerns about humane treatment and higher risks of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow Disease"). However, workers in the video are seen prodding, kicking, and repeatedly shocking lame animals with electric prods in order to get them to stand up and walk off the truck. In other scenes, botched attempts to euthanize downed cows with a captive bolt gun are shown to cause trauma without actually killing the animal. In at least one instance, after failing to kill a cow with a bolt, a worker is seen suffocating the wounded animal by standing on her nose.

After the USDA conducted its own investigation, it suspended inspection of the facility on August 19th, effectively closing it. But Central Valley was allowed to resume operations on August 27th after filing an "extensive corrective action plan" with the Agency. The company claimed in a statement that its additional safeguards will "establish a new industry standard for the handling of animals" -- standards that include reducing reliance on electric prods, requiring employee training in humane animal treatment, and barring the company from receiving downers for slaughter. Compassion Over Killing director Erica Meier points out that "many of the so-called corrective measures are steps that slaughter plants should already be taking in order to ensure compliance with federal law."

So much for a "new industry standard." More alarming still is the question of who will be enforcing these minimum standards. Presumably, it will be the same USDA inspectors that were already stationed at the plant when COK's undercover operative was there -- the ones who said nothing until the results of their inaction were broadcast across the Internet. Tellingly, the facility had no record of non-compliance prior to the arrival of COK's investigator.

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Cody Carlson is a writer based in New York and a former investigator for Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.

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