Is slaughterhouse abuse of cows surprising? Government agency has complained about it for yearsPosted: August 24, 2012
By Katerina Lorenzatos Makris
An undercover video recently released by animal protection group Compassion Over Killing is difficult to watch, revealing horrific abuses of former dairy cows in a California slaughterhouse, such as killing them slowly and painfully, dousing them with scalding hot water, and using electric prods to repeatedly shock animals who appear to be ill or injured—one animal, the narrator says, more than 40 times. But these inhumane and illegal practices might not come as much of a surprise to some observers.
Those observers possibly include the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), who in 2010 told congress that their three-month study found major “weaknesses” in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) oversight of the nation’s meatpacking companies—weaknesses that resulted in “egregious” abuses.
GAO Director of Natural Resources and Environment Lisa Shames testified to a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on government reform that USDA inspectors often did not take action against companies for such illegal practices as:
- Using electric prods to shock animals in sensitive areas such as the anus and eyes
- Excessive beating or electric prodding of ambulatory or nonambulatory disabled animals
- Using electric prods to shock more than 50 out of 100 animals
“Concerns about the humane handling and slaughter of livestock have increased in recent years,” Shames added, “particularly after possible HMSA violations were revealed [by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) undercover investigations] at a slaughter plant in California in 2008 and one in Vermont in 2009.”
[HMSA is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, which “prohibits the inhumane treatment of livestock in slaughter plants.”]
USDA failed to implement GAO’s previous recommendations from 2004
“In 2004, we recommended that FSIS [the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] establish additional clear, specific, and consistent criteria for district offices to use when considering whether to take enforcement actions because of repeat violations,” recalled Shames.
“FSIS agreed with this recommendation and delegated to the districts the responsibility for determining how many repeat violations should result in a suspension,” she said. “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.”
No action taken on some violations
Shames described the performance of FSIS on humane issues as follows:
- “… our analysis of noncompliance reports shows inconsistency in the actions inspectors took in response to excessive beating or prodding. “
- “ … excessive beating or prodding of ambulatory or nonambulatory disabled animals is egregious abuse—and may therefore warrant suspension of plant operations.”
- “Our review of noncompliance reports identified incidents in which inspectors did not suspend plant operations or take regulatory actions when they appeared warranted. “
- “From inspectors’ noncompliance reports, we identified several specific incidents in which inspectors did not either take a regulatory control action or suspend plant operations.”
Not enough veterinarians
“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,” Shames testified.
“As of fiscal year 2008, FSIS had a 15 percent shortage of veterinarians,” she said. “The majority of these veterinarians work in slaughter plants, and these plants ranged from no vacancy to 35 percent of their veterinarian positions vacant.”
How the study was done
Shames said the GAO “conducted a survey of inspectors-in-charge—those responsible for reporting on humane handling enforcement in the plants—from a random sample of inspectors-in-charge at 257 livestock slaughter plants from May 2009 through July 2009.”
The study also “examined a sample of FSIS noncompliance reports, suspension data, and district veterinary medical specialist reports in all 15 of FSIS’s district offices for fiscal years 2005 through 2009,” said Shames.
Animal Issues Reporter (AIR) has contacted FSIS to request comment on changes the agency might have made in their slaughterhouse inspection system since the 2010 GAO study was conducted. AIR will report any response from FSIS in upcoming articles.
Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Credits include hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s Petside.com, and Examiner.com (Animal Policy Examiner), a teleplay for CBS-TV, a short story for The Bark magazine, and 17 novels for Avon, E.P. Dutton, Simon and Schuster, and other major publishers.
Together with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press).
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