U. S. Agriculture Department inspectors need better training on what action to take when they see livestock being abused, the investigative arm of Congress said in a report March 4.
The U. S. food industry and its regulators have been subject to more scrutiny from activist groups and the public since a livestock abuse case forced the biggest-ever meat recall in U. S. history. A California packing plant was closed in 2008 because animals too sick or injured to walk were processed for meat.
“There is a direct connection between the enforcement of animal-handling laws and food safety, and if people understand that, they should take an interest in how those animals are treated,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, said at a hearing examining the USDA’s enforcement of humane slaughter laws.
In a survey, USDA inspectors reported different responses for what they would do if they saw meat plants breaking a law to ensure animals do not feel pain at slaughter, the Government Accountability Office said.
Some 23 per cent of inspectors surveyed said they would shut down the plant if they witnessed plant workers improperly stunning livestock, 27 per cent said they would file a report requiring corrective action, 38 per cent said they would take “regulatory control action,” five per cent said they did not know, and seven per cent had another response, the watchdog agency said.
The USDA needs clear guidelines and inspectors with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) need more training to ensure they all know what to do, the GAO said.
The USDA said it disagreed with the GAO’s assessment.
“Field personnel know when to take action, and they do take action,” said Jerold Mande, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, in testimony prepared for the hearing.
Mande said the GAO’s survey did not have enough context from which to draw conclusions.
The key finding of the survey is that inspectors agreed they would take action, he said.
Mande acknowledged there was room for improvement. He noted that USDA added 23 inspection positions, has plans to hire a humane handling enforcement co-ordinator and will collect more data to analyze and monitor humane handling inspections.
Looks the other way
Lawmakers viewed undercover footage shot by the Humane Society of the United States at a Vermont veal-calf slaughtering plant.
The GAO said it showed plant workers skinning and decapitating one-week old veal calves while they were conscious. The USDA and state officials closed the Bushway Packing Inc. plant in October when they saw the footage.
Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who works in slaughter plants and is a well-known whistle-blower on inhumane practices, said he had suspended operations at the plant three times, only to have it reopened each time by a supervisor.
The Humane Society said the footage shows a USDA inspector turning a blind eye to the abuse.
The USDA continues to investigate the allegations, and has fired one employee, Mande said.
Wyatt said his efforts to enforce the law came close to ruining his career.
“The district office called me, told me to drastically reduce the amount of time I spent on humane handling enforcement because I was finding too many problems,” he told lawmakers.
Mande said the Obama adminstration “would not tolerate” retaliation against USDA inspectors who expose animal abuse.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said in his prepared testimony, “It will take significant effort to overcome the habits built up over so many years, in which inspectors have been made to feel that they shouldn’t rock the boat.”