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February 2001

Faulty practices result in inhumane slaughterhouses


Scripps Howard News Service

Some slaughterhouse operators are violating federal law by failing to properly knock out animals before they are put on assembly lines for processing, surveys by veterinarians and animal-welfare groups say. In one graphic video released by a California group, live and thrashing cows are shown chained upside down on a Washington state meat-processing line after they were supposed to have been rendered unconscious. One prone cow is shown being prodded in the mouth with an electric wand while being held in a chute.

Affidavits by workers claim that from 10 percent to 30 percent of the animals in that plant have been processed while conscious. Meanwhile, a 1996 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed barely 36 percent of 11 large slaughterhouses nationwide were using "acceptable" slaughter techniques.

Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association of San Rafael, Calif., said the video taken a year ago at the giant IBP plant at Wullula, Wash., was the first filmed evidence obtained, in addition to written documentation in other cases, in showing what the group contends is unethical treatment of animals at meat-processing plants nationwide. IBP is the world's largest meat processor.

Federal laws require animals to be unconscious when they are processed at slaughterhouses.

"We caught them red-handed here," Miller said.

Miller said his organization is trying to focus attention on more humane treatment of farm animals, but is not opposed to eating meat. "We recognize slaughter for food, but not subject to torture," he said.

Federal meat inspectors, who are charged with monitoring slaughterhouses for unethical activities, are supporting the complaint by the animal-welfare activists.

Arthur Hughes, vice chairman of the National Council of Food Inspection Locals, a union of 6,000 federal meat inspectors associated with the American Federation of Government Employees, said new federal regulations giving slaughterhouses more responsibility over plant operations have left them powerless to enforce existing laws.

"Drastic increases in production speeds, lack of support from supervisors in plants, new inspection policies which significantly reduce our enforcement authority, and little or no access to the areas of the plants where animals are killed, have significantly hampered our ability to ensure compliance with humane regulations," Hughes said.

The union is battling the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service over "science-based" regulations that have taken meat and poultry inspectors off production lines, and given more responsibility to meat-processing companies to ensure their plants are operating properly. The Food Safety and Inspection Service did not respond to several telephone calls seeking comment over the last week.

The Washington state incident comes at a time when cattlemen and industry groups are increasingly sensitive about the way the public views their activities.

The American Meat Institute is convening a meeting with federal officials and slaughter experts this week in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss humane slaughtering and other animal-rights issues.

"The public is demanding good, humane handling, which they have a right to demand,'' said Janet Riley, AMI's vice president. "This is a high-profile issue."

Riley said the video of what happened at the Washington state plant "is not a common occurrence," and both plant employees and federal inspectors are adopting new inspection and training programs to ensure animals are treated properly.

IBP, which is in the process of being purchased by the chicken conglomerate Tysons Foods, acknowledges that its plant is depicted in the video, but says it hasn't seen an unedited version, and doesn't know the identities of employees involved.

"We don't condone the livestock practices shown,'' said IBP spokesman Gary Mickelson.

He said IBP has adopted a new "Handle with Care" program to train employees on proper handling of livestock, and has assigned a veterinarian to oversee animal ethical issues at its plants. The company has also installed a camera in the stunning pens to document how animals are handled.

The industry insists that it's in its interests to handle animals humanely. Improper slaughtering techniques result in blood-splattered meat, which is unaesthetic on supermarket shelves and so used only for hamburgers. "There's every incentive for us to handle animals humanely," Riley said.

Surveys show there have been ethical treatment problems at many American slaughterhouses in recent years.

A 1996 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found almost two-thirds of slaughter plants were not in compliance with the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, which requires animals to be rendered "insensible to pain" with one jolt to the head before they are slaughtered. Larger slaughterhouses process up to 400 cattle or 1,100 pigs per hour.

In some cases, the survey found, animals were shot in the neck, rather than the head, because of operator error, while in other cases, the shot was inadequate to knock out the animal because of equipment malfunction or poor design.

Slaughterhouses commonly use either an electric wand or what the industry calls a "captive bolt" to knock out animals before they are chained to a rail for bleeding and processing. But because of worn equipment or improper training, the stunning isn't always effective.

Even at plants using proper techniques, about one in 1,000 animals will revive on the processing line, and require further stunning.

Temple Grandin, a veterinarian at Colorado State University's Department of Animal Sciences, said a 1999 survey of 49 plants in 12 states reported improvement. That study found 10 percent of the plants were failing the federal standard that animals be rendered insensitive with one shot or jolt to the head.

She said a noticeable change in the way slaughterhouses treat animals came in 1999 when McDonald's and other fast-food concerns sent teams of their own inspectors to monitor the processing of animals, and watch other food safety concerns.

The on-site auditing by the fast-food companies "brought the biggest change I've seen in 25 years," she said.

Miller disputed that there's been much of a change, and charged that the meat industry is engaging in "spin control" to avoid a public-relations disaster.

On the Net: (Humane Farming Association)

(Lance Gay is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail:

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