A year ago, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report, accusing the food safety division of the agency of not fulfilling or even understanding its legal obligations where humane slaughter enforcement is concerned.
Specifically, the OIG found that USDA does not meaningfully attempt to stop repeat violations of the Humane Slaughter Act and that many USDA inspectors do not even understand what is required of them. Even when OIG inspectors monitored their actions openly, inspectors still did not understand or carry out their humane slaughter mandate.
Records just obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was filed by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Lewis & Clark Animal Legal Clinic, and my organization indicate that nothing has been done over the past year to improve the situation.
One slaughterhouse involved sits in a small town about 75 miles from Minneapolis. A report on the plant from the United States Department of Agriculture was gruesome: The plant manager in this Minnesota slaughterhouse shot a cow through the head, and then tormented the animal for more than 10 more minutes.
Instead of even trying to put the animal down, as he was legally obligated to do, the plant manager electrocuted the cow with an electric prod, over and over, trying to get her to leave the stunning box, where two cows were trapped in a space intended to hold one.
The USDA inspector who filed the report noted that because the gate to the stun box was halfway down, the cow’s escape was a “physical impossibility.” But that didn’t stop the plant manager from trying. The cow’s screaming brought two USDA inspectors and the plant’s “slaughter QA supervisor” to the scene, but their presence did not deter the plant manager from continuing to electrocute this poor cow.
Because the electrocution was so painful, the cow tried to cram her body through the gate; the report indicates that due to her attempting the impossible, her “hide [was] peeled back … and there was blood and hair throughout the wound, as well as blood and hair on the lift gate.”
The report goes on, but I’ll spare you the (literally) bloody details.
Over the next eight months, this plant was cited 13 more times for violations of federal law, including seven “noncompliance reports” that should have resulted in suspensions, according to USDA’s own policy requirements. Indeed, one of the problems explicitly identified by the OIG a year ago was precisely this — that inspectors were far too lenient and were violating USDA’s official policy both by neglecting to cite lawbreaking plants at all, and by neglecting to suspend plants for egregious abuse.
As just one example from our FOIA response, a USDA report documents a terrified cow who was shot through the head and remained completely conscious, bellowing and foaming at the mouth. Blood streamed from what the USDA veterinarian called a “penetrating wound.” It took the plant more than two minutes before this suffering animal was finally put down.
The USDA knows this should have resulted in a suspension; they suspended the plant three other times over six months for almost identical violations.
Every one of these 14 administrative actions was a federal crime, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. But the USDA appears never to have referred a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse for criminal violation of the Humane Slaughter Act, no matter how severe the illegal activity.
My organization is calling on USDA to refer egregious cruelty to federal prosecutors, as the agency is statutorily empowered to do, and also to withdraw federal grants of inspection from repeat violators.
USDA should start with this Minnesota plant, and until it does, it should not be believed when it claims to take its humane slaughter mandate seriously.
Animals are suffering horrible abuse in our nation’s slaughterhouses, USDA is charged with stopping it, and it is past time the agency took these basic steps to do so.
Bruce Friedrich is senior policy director for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization.