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
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.