Food inspectors failing the public — and animals

By Dan Paden

Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) veterinarian Dean Wyatt recently blew the whistle on his agency, telling a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that FSIS managers repeatedly ignored his warnings about unsafe and inhumane practices at slaughterhouses in Oklahoma and Vermont. While working at these facilities, Wyatt witnessed calves being dragged along the ground because they were too weak to stand, cattle being left to writhe in pain after they were haphazardly shot in the head with captive-bolt guns, pigs being trampled and crushed as they were unloaded off trucks and other atrocities.

On the same day that Wyatt testified before Congress, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that FSIS personnel consistently fail to enforce humane slaughtering standards.

Why should this matter to you? The same uncaring system that allows workers to beat animals without provocation and to cut pigs’ throats while the animals are kicking and squealing (actions that were witnessed by Wyatt) also allows carcasses contaminated with feces and vomit, tumors and abscesses, to be sent down the line.

If the appalling abuse of animals in the meat industry isn’t enough to make you sick, the meat itself just might. In a new report, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Georgetown University estimate that foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. $152 billion in health-related expenses every year. This figure is far higher than previous estimates, which have ranged from $7 billion to $35 billion.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, 76 million people in the U.S. suffer from foodborne illnesses. Five thousand of them die.

Animals on factory farms live mired in their own waste and breathe ammonia-laden air that burns their lungs and damages their immune systems. They are slaughtered on killing floors that are contaminated with feces, vomit and other bodily fluids—unsanitary conditions that have led to a rise in foodborne bacteria. When government food inspectors—pressured by supervisors—turn a blind eye to the filthy conditions in meat-processing plants, it’s little wonder that tainted meat enters the food supply.

It shouldn’t take an undercover investigation by an animal protection organization to prompt officials to act, but that’s often the case. After Wyatt told his supervisors about the animal abuse that he witnessed at the Bushway Packing plant in Vermont, he was ordered to attend remedial training classes—an unusual punishment for someone who has worked with the food inspection agency for more than 18 years.

After an animal welfare group released footage of 1-day-old calves being kicked, beaten and electrically shocked at Bushway, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered Bushway to cease operations.

When PETA released video footage from a 2001 undercover investigation showing Seaboard Farms workers in Oklahoma bludgeoning, beating and stomping on live pigs, the manager of the farm pleaded guilty to felony cruelty to animals. When Wyatt reported abuses at a Seaboard Farms meatpacking plant, he received a letter of reprimand from FSIS.

These abuses are taking place on factory farms and in slaughterhouses day after day—whether or not animal protection groups are there to record them. Cows routinely have their limbs hacked off while they are still alive. Improperly stunned hogs kick and scream as they are drowned in tanks of scalding-hot water, which is used to soften their skin. Contaminated, filthy carcasses pass by USDA inspectors and head down the line toward your grocery store or favorite restaurant. In many cases, government inspectors stand by and do nothing, fearing retaliation if they report inhumane or unsanitary conditions.

If the agency that is charged with preventing abuses at slaughterhouses cannot—or will not—properly do its job, then it’s up to consumers to take action. If you don’t want to support the suffering in the slaughterhouse or risk your health by possibly consuming tainted meat, then stop paying for it. Leave the broken bodies of animals off your plate.

Dan Paden is a senior research associate in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Cruelty Investigations Department.

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