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.


Andrew 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.

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.

Unfortunately, Central Valley Meat is not an isolated incident. The exposé marks the third time in the last five years that an animal welfare group has gone undercover in a federally inspected cattle slaughterhouse. Each time, their findings have sparked public outrage and compelled immediate regulatory action.

In 2008, a Humane Society investigator documented downed cows -- once again, spent dairy cows -- at Hallmark Meatpacking of Chino, CA being dragged to slaughter by forklifts. The investigation led to the recall of over 143 million pounds of beef products, as well as felony and misdemeanor animal cruelty convictions for two plant employees. Embarrassed USDA officials vowed before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that the Agency would increase enforcement of humane handling laws. Instead, the Agency quietly directed its inspectors to stop reporting serious humane handling violations through publicly accessible "Noncompliance Records," and instead to use faxed "Memorandum of Interview" reports. This may help explain why Central Valley has no record of noncompliance.

A year after the Hallmark scandal, Bushway Packing, a veal processor in Western Vermont, was permanently shuttered after another Humane Society investigator documented workers maliciously torturing young calves with electric prods, and in one case, attempting to skin a calf alive. Bushway's owner ultimately pled no contest to one count of animal cruelty, and was permanently barred from working with animals.

Dr. Dean Wyatt was the USDA public health veterinarian stationed at Bushway, an 18-year veteran of the Agency. Prior to the Humane Society investigation, Wyatt had suspended operations at the plant on three occasions due to egregious animal handling violations. Each time, he claims he was overruled and castigated by his off-site supervisors, who even went so far as to rewrite his reports by omitting information and changing words like "thrown" to "dropped."

Frustrated, Wyatt tipped off the Humane Society, which was able to confirm his allegations using undercover video. The Humane Society investigator also documented another USDA inspector passively watching as a worker attempted to skin a calf alive , only to tell the worker that "if [Wyatt] sees you peeling pieces off of [a cow] before its bled out, it's done - you guys will be shut down."

Wyatt's experiences - detailed in his Congressional testimony -- shed a light on the entrenched apathy senior USDA officials have towards enforcing humane handling laws, and worse, their apparent collusion with plant operators to silence and retaliate against front-line inspectors like Wyatt who take their mandate to enforce these laws seriously.

"Field inspectors could see what had happened to me simply because I was doing my job," Wyatt testified. "They did not want the same thing to happen to them. Why would they risk their jobs by writing too many noncompliance reports?"

The unfortunate truth about the USDA is that it is an agency in crisis. Pulled in both directions by competing mandates to simultaneously regulate and promote U.S. agriculture, it has neglected the former in its dogged pursuit of the latter. COK's recent investigation reminds us that animal abuse in the meatpacking industry is widespread, and that the USDA has appeared more concerned with safeguarding the industry's reputation than fulfilling its federal mandate to protect consumers and safeguard animal welfare.

As Central Valley Meat resumes business as usual, it seems clear that the onus is being placed on private animal welfare charities like Compassion Over Killing and the Humane Society to fulfill the USDA's mandate. Let's wish them luck.