The meat industry has been scandalized in recent years by undercover videos showing horrific abuse of farm animals on their way to slaughter: workers kicking piglets like volleyballs, skinning veal calves alive and ramming a forklift into a sick cow.
The videos prompted commitments to improve enforcement of a 55-year-old federal law requiring that animals be insensible to pain when they’re slaughtered.
Although many slaughter plants and meat inspectors have worked hard to avoid further abuse, new evidence shows that problems continue.
A federal investigation released last month shows many animals still suffer needlessly.
The federal audit found that meat inspectors unevenly enforce humane-slaughter rules — or don’t enforce them at all. That’s because their bosses won’t support them, two whistle-blowing meat inspectors recently told The Kansas City Star.
Even efforts by the government’s “humane handling ombudsman” –– hired last year to improve enforcement –– reportedly were ignored in one recent case.
Temple Grandin, a meat industry consultant and a widely acknowledged expert on the humane treatment of animals, agrees there are still problems.
Inconsistent enforcement and vague regulations mean some plants get away with “really mistreating animals and doing bad stuff,” she said, while others abide by the law and are still unfairly punished.
A top meat inspection official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged problems in uniformly applying the rules, but said he does not believe his agency would punish inspectors for enforcing the law.
It’s the law
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 requires that food animals be slaughtered in a way “that causes a minimum of excitement, pain, injury, or discomfort.”
It says animals should be rendered “insensible to pain” before slaughter, a tall order in a country that last month alone killed 3 million head of cattle and 9.2 million pigs.
Today that is accomplished by electrical stunning, a bullet to the head, a “captive bolt” gun that drives a steel rod into the animal’s brain or –– in the case of pigs –– lowering them into a carbon dioxide gas chamber.
While some might see humane slaughter as the sole province of animal-rights groups and radical vegetarians, many in the meat industry have long embraced it.
Compliance with the law saves money, improves meat quality and keeps consumers happy.
When pigs are stressed before slaughter, for example, they produce what is called PSE, or “pale, soft, exudative pork,” which makes the meat dry and unattractive to consumers.
Despite the benefits, however, a number of incidents from 2008 to last year show enforcement is lacking.
A 2008 undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States showed a crippled, sick cow being shoved toward the kill floor of a California beef plant with a forklift. The video led to a recall of 143 million pounds of beef –– the largest in U.S. history.
In March 2010, Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian, told a congressional hearing that when he tried to enforce the humane slaughter act, he was overruled by his bosses and eventually punished.
Those incidents led to renewed enforcement efforts.
Yet just last month, an audit by the USDA’s inspector general found that conditions in some plants haven’t changed.
At a plant in Minnesota, investigators saw a hog emerge from a carbon dioxide chamber still conscious and alert.
“Instead of immediately re-stunning the hog, it took plant employees over 1½ minutes to administer a stun with the captive bolt gun,” auditors said.
In a testament to one Indiana pig’s incredible luck and sheer will to live, auditors said the animal was stunned with a captive bolt gun that misfired, causing the bolt to lodge in the animal’s skull. It remained conscious and aware while the plant sent for another gun, which also misfired.
The hog remained conscious, squealed and somehow managed to dislodge the first bolt from its skull. Finally, workers put it out of its misery with an electric stunner.
Despite meat industry protests, the USDA began posting significant humane-slaughter violations on its website last year.
Among the 85 enforcement actions since May 2012 is a New York plant cited in March when inspectors found a calf that was still gasping for air after it had been partly eviscerated and skinned.
The meat industry’s primary lobby, the American Meat Institute, has actively promoted humane slaughter and says the low number of violations reflects “a high level of compliance by the industry.”
Some federal meat inspectors say their efforts to enforce the law are hampered by their bosses.
After federal meat inspector Jim Schrier documented problems late last year at a Tyson pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, he said he was transferred to another plant miles from his home.
The plant stuns hogs with a hand-held electrical stunner.
Setting the stunner too high can cause a “blowout,” Schrier said, when hogs jerk abruptly, breaking their backbone and damaging valuable cuts of meat.
As a result, he said, stunners are sometimes set too low.
“That’s when you end up with hogs that are conscious, a violation of the humane slaughter act,” Schrier said.
Schrier said plant workers –– who are sometimes injured by animals that are conscious and kicking in mid-slaughter –– often had to re-stun the hogs with a captive bolt gun.
After he confronted his boss about ignoring his findings, Schrier said, he was transferred to another plant 120 miles away.
“We’ve been gagged the last few years if we stop the production line,” Schrier said. “And our supervisors never back us up.”
Several of Schrier’s co-workers backed up his claims, but asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Schrier, a food inspector for 29 years, sought help from the Government Accountability Project, or GAP, a nonprofit organization that offers legal help to whistle-blowers.
Schrier’s bosses at the USDA are reluctant to comment on his specific case.
But Dan Engeljohn, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said, “With regard to Mr. Schrier ... I was aware of repeated behaviors over extensive periods of time ... Sometimes employees need to start fresh with a new environment.
“In this particular case,” Englejohn said, “there is some history there that played into the decision about whether this employee would be better positioned elsewhere. There is a broader perspective here, not just the humane handling.”
GAP officials don’t agree.
“With 29 years of outstanding civil service and a near-perfect record of employment, it seems to me the only career mistake Mr. Schrier made was enforcing the law,” said Amanda Hitt, director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign, which is preparing to intervene on Schrier’s behalf.
A Tyson spokesman said the company was unaware of Schrier’s assertions.
He said the company trains its workers carefully and uses strict humane-handling guidelines developed by Grandin. He added that the plant monitors its electrical stunner to make sure it is working properly.
Partly because of complaints such as Schrier’s, the USDA last year appointed a humane handling ombudsman, whose job is to help resolve complaints from inspectors and the public.
But the travails of Kansas-based meat inspector Judy Kachanes, a 26-year veteran of the agency, suggest the department isn’t making the ombudsman’s job any easier.
Kachanes said she contacted the ombudsman, Mark Crowe, after her bosses failed to take action on her complaints about humane-slaughter violations at a small meat plant in McPherson, Kan.
Eventually, her complaint made its way to Englejohn, who met Crowe in McPherson last year to look into the situation.
Englejohn said in documents obtained by The Star that the plant could probably improve its compliance with humane-slaughter rules, but he ultimately decided there was no violation.
Kachanes has since been reassigned to another plant, and she is currently being advised by GAP.
At the very least, said Hitt, of GAP, the case demonstrates that the inspection agency dismissed or ignored the efforts of its own humane handling ombudsman.
Hitt said Crowe told her that the USDA’s meat inspection division had “largely ignored” him in his efforts to resolve the matter.
Crowe declined to comment, but Englejohn acknowledged that Crowe wanted the agency to do more to address Kachanes’ concerns.
As for Kachanes, Englejohn said he was asked to look into her performance history, “and there is some history there that needed to be addressed.”
Hitt responded: “The only performance history in question is the USDA’s history of not enforcing the act.”
Some in the meat industry continue to fight efforts to improve humane practices, some animal-welfare groups say.
For example, the industry has pushed for state “ag gag” laws that make it a crime to take unauthorized videos at farms and slaughterhouses. Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas and 18 other states currently have ag gag laws.
“These ag gag laws are the worst thing agriculture ever did,” said Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. “It sounds like they’ve got something to hide.”
Recently released USDA documents also show that regulators gave in to meat industry pressure on the issue of “downer” animals –– those that are unable to walk to the kill floor under their own steam.
After the Humane Society’s 2008 “sick cow” video, the USDA banned the slaughter of “downer” cattle.
Downed pigs and sheep can still be slaughtered if they pass certain inspections.
But as a result of the scandal, another USDA agency –– the Agricultural Marketing Service, which buys meat for the school lunch program –– reconfigured its purchasing requirements.
An early draft said any plant that processed downed pigs could not sell to the school lunch program, even if that meat went to other customers.
But according to USDA documents obtained by the Humane Society, and verified by The Star, that requirement was dropped after the meat industry objected.
Industry lobbyists said they were concerned that the rule would “preclude pork suppliers from doing business with the Federal commodity purchase program.”
The Humane Society and other groups said they had no opportunity to comment.
A spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute said the policy would “dissuade companies from participating in the school lunch program and ultimately drive up costs with no consumer benefit.”
The spokeswoman, institute Vice President Janet Riley, added that the policy would have been an overreach.
“AMS should not be dictating to companies what products those companies can sell with respect to transactions outside the scope of the school lunch program,” she said.
An AMS official speaking only on background told The Star that the requirement was not dropped because of industry pressure but because the agency realized it would be demanding a wholesale change in meat industry practices.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said the case shows that the Agriculture Department bent to the will of the meat industry.
“USDA has historically been more a protector of the meat industry than a serious-minded enforcer of the laws,” Pacelle said.