Modern Meat in America--A Brutal Harvest

In two parts

Washington Post; Page A01
Part I: Beef-Inspection Failures Let in a Deadly Microbe

Nearly a century after Upton Sinclair exposed the scandal of America's slaughterhouses in his novel "The Jungle," some of the nation's largest meatpacking plants still fail to meet federal inspection guidelines to produce meat free of disease-carrying filth, an investigation by The Washington Post and Dateline NBC has found.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors who patrol the nation's 6,000 meatpacking plants today are armed with more modern tools and tougher standards than ever. But the government's watchdog agency often has lacked the legal muscle and political will to address serious safety threats. It cannot impose civil fines or recall meat even when its inspectors see problems that could lead to outbreaks.

In a Milwaukee case, one of the nation's largest, most modern meatpacking plants - Excel Corp.'s Fort Morgan, Colo., facility - was cited 26 times over a 10-month period before someone died as a result of letting feces contaminate meat, documents show. Despite new government controls on bacteria launched three years ago, the plant shipped out beef tainted with E. coli on at least four occasions.

"It was like making Fords without brakes," said Michael Schwochert, a veterinarian and retired federal inspector who worked at the Excel plant. "We used to sit around the office and say,

'They're going to have to kill someone before anything gets done.',"

Excel officials said they were unable to talk about the Milwaukee outbreak, citing litigation. In a statement, Excel said it uses cutting-edge technology to prevent contamination, but food must be properly cooked and handled to ensure safety. "Excel is committed to providing safe food for people," the company said.

Criticism of the USDA's enforcement record comes as domestic E. coli outbreaks and epidemics of mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease in Europe heighten concerns about America's meat supply. Contamination similar to that found at Excel was documented at several other plants around the country in an internal agency report a month before the Milwaukee outbreak.

The USDA's inspector general, in a sharply critical review of the agency's inspection system, said the government's safety net for consumers was being compromised by confusing policies, blurred lines of authority and a lack of options for enforcement. At some plants, regulators frequently were finding tainted beef but doing nothing because they simply "were unaware of any actions to take," the report said.

"How long does it take for a 'bad' plant to be listed as bad? We can't tell you," USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero said in an interview, "because [the USDA] has not told the inspector what's bad."

A Safer System?

The internal struggle over beef quality at the Excel plant would likely have never attracted public attention were it not for two headline-generating events.

The first came in August 1999 with the chance discovery - in a USDA random survey - of E. coli in Excel beef at an Indiana grocery store.

The second was the Milwaukee E. coli outbreak last summer. In one of the worst such incidents in state history, more than 500 people got sick, 62 with confirmed E. coli infections.

What happened between the two incidents starkly illustrates how problems at modern meat plants test the limits of the USDA's new inspection and meat safety system.

Located on a dry plain 80 miles northeast of Denver, the Excel factory is an imposing agglomeration of smokestacks and aircraft hangar-sized buildings covering 2 million square feet. The only outward sign that the plant produces beef is the line of trucks delivering cattle to the stockyard. That, and the ubiquitous smell - cow manure with a hint of decaying meat.

Inside, much of the butchering is done the old-fashioned way, by workers using various sorts of knives. At the front of the line is the "knocker," who uses a pistol-like device to drive a metal bolt into the steer's head - the law requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughtering. Another worker slits the animal's throat to drain the blood. Others in turn remove limbs, hide and organs.

At line speeds of more than 300 cattle per hour, things frequently go wrong. Organs tear and spill their contents. Fecal matter is smeared and splattered.

The presence of fecal matter greatly increases the risk of pathogens, which is why USDA inspectors enforce a "zero-tolerance" policy for fecal contamination on meat carcasses. Meat smeared with fecal matter is supposed to be pulled off the line and cleaned by trimming.

But there is no law that requires raw meat to be free of pathogens; the exception is for ground beef. Thus, raw meat must carry a label that specifies it must be properly cooked.

In 1993, the Jack in the Box food poisonings on the West Coast killed four children and awakened Americans to E. coli 0157, a mutant bacterial strain that lurked in undercooked ground beef. Three years later, the Clinton administration officially scrapped a century-old system that relied on the eyes and noses of federal inspectors - called "poke and sniff" - in favor of a preventative system of controls developed by the industry with federal supervision.

That system, supported by food safety experts and many consumer groups, was called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, or HACCP (pronounced hass-ip). Under HACCP, companies create their own plans for addressing safety threats - a "hazard analysis" - and their own methods of dealing with threats - "control points."

The theory is that hazards arise at many points in the production process, and steps can be taken to minimize risks from pathogens. The measures can range from lowering room temperatures to dousing meat with a chlorine rinse to kill germs.

In a nod to consumer groups, HACCP introduced mandatory testing for microbes for the first time. Plants would be subjected to testing for salmonella and a benign form of E. coli, but not the deadly E. coli 0157:H7.

Three years into HACCP implementation, the reviews are decidedly mixed. The rate for deadly E. coli illness remains steady, with 73,000 people stricken and 61 killed a year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a steady decline in disease rates for salmonella and several other pathogens since 1996 has prompted UDSA officials and many consumer groups to declare HACCP a major success.

"The nation's food supply is safer than ever," Thomas J. Billy, administrator of the Food Safety Inspection Service, said in a statement in response to questions about HACCP's performance. "Our data shows the level of harmful bacteria has been markedly reduced."

But Pathogens Remain A Major Concern.

The USDA estimates that salmonella is present in 35 percent of turkeys, 11 percent of chickens and 6 percent of ground beef. Each year, food-borne pathogens cause 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

According to critics, gaps in HACCP still allow too many pathogens to slip through.

The report by the USDA's inspector general last summer said meat companies were manipulating the new system to limit interference from inspectors. For example, by their placement of control points, plants can effectively dictate which parts of the process inspectors can fully monitor.

Viadero said the agency was "uncertain of its authorities" and had "reduced its oversight short of what is prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."

"After what I've seen," Viadero said in an interview, "if my hamburgers don't look like hockey pucks, I don't eat them."

Meat inspectors and consumer groups like HACCP's microbe-testing requirements, but some argue the new system is an "industry-honor system" that puts consumers at greater risk. Under the old system, meat with fecal matter on it was trimmed to remove pathogens. Now, inspectors say, chemical rinses can wash off visible traces of fecal matter without removing all the pathogens.

"It's the biggest disaster I've seen," said Delmer Jones, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents most of the government's 7,600 meat inspectors. "We're vulnerable to more deaths and no one seems to care."

Last fall, two Washington watchdog groups, the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen, released results of an unscientific poll of 451 inspectors. While a majority approved of HACCP in concept, more than three-fourths said their ability to enforce the law had declined.

One inspector scribbled these words:

"HACCP ties our hands and limits what we can do. If this is the best the government has to offer, I will instruct my family and friends to turn vegetarian."

Schwochert, formerly the night shift inspector-in-charge at Excel's Fort Morgan Plant, worked 15 years in private business before joining the USDA. He prided himself on his ability to work with industry, but he felt that HACCP made his job even tougher.

"I've never seen anything so slow to respond," he said.

"Nothing in my professional training or life gave me the tools for dealing with what was going on. It was a calamity of errors. If it weren't so serious, it would be funny."

Showdown at Excel

By the late summer and fall of 1999, Schwochert was accustomed to tussling with Excel's managers over problems ranging from filthy, urine-soaked employee washrooms to occasional findings of fecal matter on carcasses. But the skirmishes intensified dramatically on Sept. 13, after the USDA found E. coli 0157 in a package of Excel beef at the Indiana grocery store.

The discovery, part of a routine survey of grocery stores and meatpacking plants, triggered a series of reviews of the Excel plant's food-safety practices.

The measures began with two weeks of E. coli testing. Inspectors found E. coli - not once but twice, in the first three days of testing. The USDA ordered the contaminated meat seized, but it was too late. Some of the meat had been loaded onto a delivery truck.

"Not only were those samples positive, but that meat had left the plant," Schwochert said. Excel tracked down the truck and returned the meat to the plant.

USDA documents show the combination of E. coli positives and the improper shipment of the contaminated beef prompted the government to impose its harshest sanction: A district supervisor "withheld inspection" from the plant, forcing Excel to shut down for three days. On Sept. 28, the plant reopened under the threat of another suspension if new violations occurred.

They did, but no suspension followed. By Sept. 29, inspectors were finding so much fecal contamination on carcasses that Schwochert said he tried to close the plant again, even though he felt he lacked the authority to do so. At the last minute, the plant's top supervisor agreed to shutter the factory voluntarily for the rest of the day, Schwochert said.

Excel promised to retrain its workers and fine-tune its carcass-dressing system, although details of its plan are considered proprietary information. But more contaminated carcasses turned up two days later, and regularly after that, agency records show:

Oct. 1: "Fecal contamination observed . . . sample failed to meet zero-tolerance requirements." Oct. 2: "Identifiable fecal deficiencies on two carcasses (out of 11)." Oct. 4: "Fecal contamination splotched in an area 1 inch by 4 inches . . . carcasses retained." Oct. 9: "Deficiencies were observed on six carcasses (out of 11).

In company memos, Excel responded that the inspectors were focusing on "unrelated" and "isolated" incidents. But USDA district supervisors took a different view. One USDA letter called the company's explanations "incredible, frivolous and capricious." Another specifically suggested Excel was putting its customers at risk.

"In the light of recent E. coli positives, I would think that food safety and preventive dressing procedures would be of utmost importance on your corporate agenda," Dale Hansen, the FSIS's circuit supervisor in Greeley, Colo., wrote on Nov. 29 to Marsha Kreegar, Excel's regulatory affairs superintendent.

USDA's enforcement records contain no response to that letter. Excel has declined to make officials at the Fort Morgan plant available for interviews.

For five months, the USDA chose not to impose new sanctions, despite 14 additional citations for fecal contamination and a host of other problems. Government records also describe mice infestation, grease and rainwater leaking onto meat; unsanitary knives; equipment sullied with day-old meat and fat scraps; and carcasses being dragged across floors.

USDA inspectors asked their supervisors for guidance. How many violations before the plant is suspended again? Three? Five?

"The question was asked by myself or in my presence at least 10 times," Schwochert said, "and we never got a clear answer."

On May 23, the USDA threatened another suspension. "Recent repetitive fecal findings on product produced by your firm demonstrates that the HACCP plan at your facility is not being effectively implemented to control food safety hazards," USDA District Manager Ronald Jones wrote to Excel General Manager Mike Chabot.

Excel was given three days to make changes - then a three-day extension, after Excel's initial proposals proved less than convincing.

Finally, on June 14, based on Excel's promise to improve its process, USDA withdrew its threat with an additional warning. "Your firm will be required to consistently demonstrate that your slaughter process is under control, meeting food-safety standards," the agency wrote.

USDA officials are promising change. After devoting three years to implementing HACCP, the agency is beginning an extensive review to determine how the system can be improved.

Congressional supporters of stronger food safety protections say they will press again this year for a law giving meat inspectors more effective enforcement tools, including the power to impose civil fines and order mandatory meat recalls. But after similar legislation failed in the last three sessions, backers acknowledge their prospects are far from certain.

"The American people would be shocked," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and sponsor of several previous bills, "to learn that the USDA does not have the fundamental authority to protect public health."

In Overtaxed Plants, Humane Treatment of Cattle Is Often a Battle Lost
Part II

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2001; Page A01

Second of two articles

PASCO, Wash.--It takes 25 minutes to turn a live steer into steak at the modern slaughterhouse where Ramon Moreno works. For 20 years, his post was "second-legger," a job that
entails cutting hocks off carcasses as they whirl past at a rate of 309 an hour.

The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Moreno. But too often they weren't.

"They blink. They make noises," he said softly. "The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around."

Still Moreno would cut. On bad days, he says, dozens of animals reached his station clearly alive and conscious. Some would survive as far as the tail cutter, the belly ripper, the hide puller.
"They die," said Moreno, "piece by piece."

Under a 23-year-old federal law, slaughtered cattle and hogs first must be "stunned" -- rendered insensible to pain -- with a blow to the head or an electric shock. But at overtaxed plants, the law is sometimes broken, with cruel consequences for animals as well as workers. Enforcement records, interviews, videos and worker affidavits describe repeated violations of the Humane Slaughter Act at dozens of slaughterhouses, ranging from the smallest, custom butcheries to modern, automated establishments such as the sprawling IBP Inc. plant here where Moreno works.

"In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis," said Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant. "I've seen it happen. And I've talked to other veterinarians. They feel it's out of control."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the treatment of animals in meat plants, but enforcement of the law varies dramatically. While a few plants have been forced to halt production
for a few hours because of alleged animal cruelty, such sanctions are rare.

For example, the government took no action against a Texas beef company that was cited 22 times in 1998 for violations that included chopping hooves off live cattle. In another case, agency supervisors failed to take action on multiple complaints of animal cruelty at a Florida beef plant and fired an animal health technician for reporting the problems to the Humane Society. The dismissal letter sent to the technician, Tim Walker, said his dislosure had "irreparably damaged" the agency's relations with the packing plant.

"I complained to everyone -- I said, 'Lookit, they're skinning live cows in there,' " Walker said. "Always it was the same answer: 'We know it's true. But there's nothing we can do about it.' "

In the past three years, a new meat inspection systemthat shifted responsibility to industry has made it harder to catch and report cruelty problems, some federal inspectors say. Under the new system, implemented in 1998, the agency no longer tracks the number of humane-slaughter violations its inspectors find each year.

Some inspectors are so frustrated they're asking outsiders for help: The inspectors' union last spring urged Washington state authorities to crack down on alleged animal abuse at the IBP plant in Pasco. In a statement, IBP said problems described by workers in its Washington state plant
"do not accurately represent the way we operate our plants. We take the issue of proper livestock handling very seriously."

But the union complained that new government policies and faster production speeds at the plant had "significantly hampered our ability to ensure compliance." Several animal welfare groups joined in the petition.

"Privatization of meat inspection has meant a quiet death to the already meager enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act,"said Gail Eisnitz of the Humane Farming Association, a group that advocates better treatment of farm animals. "USDA isn't simply relinquishing its humane-slaughter oversight to the meat industry, but is -- without the knowledge and consent of Congress -- abandoning this function altogether."

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, which is responsible for meat inspection, says it has not relaxed its oversight. In January, the agency ordered a review of 100 slaughterhouses. An FSIS memo reminded its 7,600 inspectors they had an "obligation to ensure compliance" with humane-handling laws.

The review comes as pressure grows on both industry and regulators to improve conditions for the 155 million cattle, hogs, horses and sheep slaughtered each year. McDonald's and Burger King have been subject to boycotts by animal rights groups protesting mistreatment of livestock.

As a result, two years ago McDonald's began requiring suppliers to abide by the American Meat Institute's Good Management Practices for Animal Handling and Stunning. The company also began conducting annual audits of meat plants. Last week, Burger King announced it would require suppliers to follow the meat institute's standards.

"Burger King Corp. takes the issues of food safety and animal welfare very seriously, and we expect our suppliers to comply," the company said in a statement.

Industry groups acknowledge that sloppy killing has tangible consequences for consumers as well as company profits. Fear and pain cause animals to produce hormones that damage meat and cost companies tens of millions of dollars a year in discarded product, according to industry estimates.

Industry officials say they also recognize an ethical imperative to treatanimals with compassion. Science is blurring the distinction between the mental processes of humans and lower animals -- discovering, for example, that even the lowly rat may dream. Americans thus are becoming more sensitive to the suffering of food animals, even as they consume increasing numbers of them.

"Handling animals humanely," said American Meat Institute President J.Patrick Boyle, "is just the right thing to do."

Clearly, not all plants have gotten the message.

A Post computer analysis of government enforcement records found 527 violations of humane-handling regulations from 1996 to 1997, the last years for which complete records were available. The offenses range from overcrowded stockyards to incidents in which live animals were cut, skinned or scalded.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Post obtained enforcementdocuments from 28 plants that had high numbers of offenses or had drawn penalties for violating humane-handling laws. The Post also interviewed dozens of current and former federal meat inspectors and slaughterhouse workers. A reporter reviewed affidavits and secret video recordings made
inside two plants.

Among the findings:

One Texas plant, Supreme Beef Packers in Ladonia, had 22 violations in six months. During one inspection, federal officials found nine live cattle dangling from an overhead chain. But managers at the plant, which announced last fall it was ceasing operations, resisted USDA warnings, saying its practices were no different than others in the industry. "Other plants are not subject to such extensive scrutiny of their stunning activities," the plant complained in a
1997 letter to the USDA.

Government inspectors halted production for a day at the Calhoun Packing Co. beef plant in Palestine, Tex., after inspectors saw cattle being improperly stunned. "They were still conscious and had good reflexes," B.V. Swamy, a veterinarian and senior USDA official at the plant, wrote. The shift supervisor "allowed the cattle to be hung anyway." IBP, which owned the plant at the time, contested the findings but "took steps to resolve the situation," including installing video equipment and increasing training, a spokesman said. IBP has since sold the plant.

At the Farmers Livestock Cooperative processing plant in Hawaii, inspectors documented 14 humane-slaughter violations in as many months. Records from 1997 and 1998 describe hogs that were walking and squealing after being stunned as many as four times. In a memo to USDA, the company said it fired the stunner and increased monitoring of the slaughter process.

At an Excel Corp. beef plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., production was halted for a day in 1998 after workers allegedly cut off the leg of a live cow whose limbs had become wedged in a piece of machinery. In imposing the sanction, U.S. inspectors cited a string of violations in the previous two years, including the cutting and skinning of live cattle. The company, responding to one such
charge, contended that it was normal for animals to blink and arch their backs after being stunned, and such "muscular reaction" can occur up to six hours after death. "None of these reactions indicate the animal is still alive," the company wrote to USDA.

Hogs, unlike cattle, are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are stunned to soften the hides for skinning. As a result, a botched slaughter condemns some hogs to being scalded and drowned. Secret videotape from an Iowa pork plant shows hogs squealing and kicking as they are being lowered into the water.

USDA documents and interviews with inspectors and plant workers attributed many of the problems to poor training, faulty or poorly maintained equipment or excessive production speeds. Those problems were identified five years ago in an industry-wide audit by Temple Grandin, an assistant professor with Colorado State University's animal sciences department and one of the nation's leading experts on slaughter practices.

In the early 1990s, Grandin developed the first objective standards for treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, which were adopted by the American Meat Institute, the industry's largest trade group. Her initial, USDA-funded survey in 1996 was one of the first attempts to grade slaughter plants.

One finding was a high failure rate among beef plants that use stunning devices known as "captive-bolt" guns. Of the plants surveyed, only 36 percent earned a rating of "acceptable" or better, meaning cattle were knocked unconscious with a single blow at least 95 percent of the time.

Grandin now conducts annual surveys as a consultant for the American Meat Institute and McDonald's Corp. She maintains that the past four years have brought dramatic improvements -- mostly because of pressure from McDonald's, which sends a team of meat industry auditors into dozens of plants each year to observe slaughter practices.

Based on the data collected by McDonald's auditors, the portion of beef plants scoring "acceptable" or better climbed to 90 percent in 1999. Some workers and inspectors are skeptical of the McDonald's numbers, and Grandin said the industry's performance dropped slightly last year after auditors stopped giving notice of some inspections.

Grandin said high production speeds can trigger problems when people and equipment are pushed beyond their capacity. From a typical kill rate of 50 cattle an hour in the early 1900s, production speeds rose dramatically in the 1980s. They now approach 400 per hour in the newest plants.

"It's like the 'I Love Lucy' episode in the chocolate factory," she said."You can speed up a job and speed up a job, and after a while you get to a point where performance doesn't simply decline -- it crashes."

When that happens, it's not only animals that suffer. Industry trade groups acknowledge that improperly stunned animals contribute to worker injuries in an industry that already has the nation's highest rate of job-related injuries and illnesses -- about 27 percent a year. At some plants, "dead" animals have inflicted so many broken limbs and teeth that workers wear chest pads and hockey masks.

"The live cows cause a lot of injuries," said Martin Fuentes, an IBP worker whose arm was kicked and shattered by a dying cow. "The line is never stopped simply because an animal is alive."

A 'Brutal' Harvest

At IBP's Pasco complex, the making of the American hamburger starts in a noisy, blood-spattered chamber shielded from view by a stainless steel wall. Here, live cattle emerge from a narrow chute to be dispatched in a process known as "knocking" or "stunning." On most days the chamber is manned by a pair of Mexican immigrants who speak little English and earn about $9 an hour for killing up to 2,050 head per shift.

The tool of choice is the captive-bolt gun, which fires a retractable metal rod into the steer's forehead. An effective stunning requires a precision shot, which workers must deliver hundreds of times daily to balky, frightened animals that frequently weigh 1,000 pounds or more. Within 12 seconds of entering the chamber, the fallen steer is shackled to a moving chain to be bled and butchered by other workers in a fast-moving production line.

The hitch, IBP workers say, is that some "stunned" cattle wake up.

"If you put a knife into the cow, it's going to make a noise: It says, 'Moo!' " said Moreno, the former second-legger, who began working in the stockyard last year. "They move the head and the eyes and the leg like the cow wants to walk."

After a blow to the head, an unconscious animal may kick or twitch by reflex. But a videotape, made secretly by IBP workers and reviewed by veterinarians for The Post, depicts cattle that clearly are alive and conscious after being stunned.

Some cattle, dangling by a leg from the plant's overhead chain, twist and arch their backs as though trying to right themselves. Close-ups show blinking reflexes, an unmistakable sign of a conscious brain, according to guidelines approved by the American Meat Institute.

The video, parts of which were aired by Seattle television station KING last spring, shows injured cattle being trampled. In one graphic scene, workers give a steer electric shocks by jamming a battery-powered prod into its mouth.

More than 20 workers signed affidavits alleging that the violations shown on tape are commonplace and that supervisors are aware of them. The sworn statements and videos were prepared with help from the Humane Farming Association. Some workers had taken part in a 1999 strike over what they said were excessive plant production speeds.

"I've seen thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive," IBP veteran Fuentes, the worker who was injured while working on live cattle, said in an affidavit. "The cows can get seven minutes down the line and still be alive. I've been in the side-puller where they're still alive. All the hide is stripped out down the neck there."

IBP, the nation's top beef processor, denounced as an "appalling aberration" the problems captured on the tape. It suggested the events may have been staged by "activists trying to raise money and promote their agenda. . . .

"Like many other people, we were very upset over the hidden camera video," the company said. "We do not in any way condone some of the livestock handling that was shown."

After the video surfaced, IBP increased worker training and installed cameras in the slaughter area. The company also questioned workers and offered a reward for information leading to identification of those responsible for the video. One worker said IBP pressured him to sign a statement denying that he had seen live cattle on the line.

"I knew that what I wrote wasn't true," said the worker, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing his job. "Cows still go alive every day. When cows go alive, it's because they don't give me time to kill them."

Independent assessments of the workers' claims have been inconclusive. Washington state officials launched a probe in May that included an unannounced plant inspection. The investigators say they were detained outside the facility for an hour while their identities were checked. They saw no acts of animal cruelty once permitted inside.

Grandin, the Colorado State professor, also inspected IBP's plant, at the company's request; that inspection was announced. Although she observed no live cattle being butchered, she concluded that the plant's older-style equipment was "overloaded." Grandin reviewed parts of the workers' videotape and said there was no mistaking what she saw.

"There were fully alive beef on that rail," Grandin said.

Inconsistent Enforcement

Preventing this kind of suffering is officially a top priority for the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. By law, a humane-slaughter violation is among a handful of offenses that can result in an immediate halt in production -- and cost a meatpacker hundreds or even thousands of dollars per idle minute.

In reality, many inspectors describe humane slaughter as a blind spot: Inspectors' regular duties rarely take them to the chambers where stunning occurs. Inconsistencies in enforcement, training and record-keeping hamper the agency's ability to identify problems.

The meat inspectors' union, in its petition last spring to Washington state's attorney general, contended that federal agents are "often prevented from carrying out" the mandate against animal cruelty. Among the obstacles inspectors face are "dramatic increases in production speeds, lack of
support from supervisors in plants and district offices . . . new inspection policies which significantly reduce our enforcement authority, and little to no access to the areas of the plants where animals are killed," stated the petition by the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.

Barbara Masters, the agency's director of slaughter operations, told meat industry executives in February she didn't know if the number of violations was up or down, though she believed most plants were complying with the law. "We encourage the district offices to monitor trends," she said. "The fact that we haven't heard anything suggests there are no trends."

But some inspectors see little evidence the agency is interested in hearing about problems. Under the new inspection system, the USDA stopped tracking the number of violations and dropped all mentions of humane slaughter from its list of rotating tasks for inspectors.

The agency says it expects its watchdogs to enforce the law anyway. Many inspectors still do, though some occasionally wonder if it's worth the trouble.

"It always ends up in argument: Instead of re-stunning the animal, you spend 20 minutes just talking about it," said Colorado meat inspector Gary Dahl, sharing his private views. "Yes, the animal will be dead in a few minutes anyway. But why not let him die with dignity?"
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