The star witness at yesterday's Congressional hearing before the House Oversight Committee's Domestic Policy Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, was a tall, mild-mannered public health veterinarian who has been employed with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for more than 18 years. The son of a former federal meat inspector who died on the job, Dr. Dean Wyatt has in recent years worked at two slaughter plants -- Seaboard Farms, a hog slaughtering plant in Guymon, Okla., and Bushway Packing, a veal calf slaughter plant in Grand Isle, Vt. When Wyatt attempted to report humane handling violations and fulfill his federal duty, higher-ups at USDA, particularly under past administrations, largely ignored, downplayed, rewrote or undercut his enforcement actions. In fact, his superiors, often in district offices hundreds of miles away, told him to cut back on time spent on humane handling and threatened him with a series of retaliatory actions, including a forced choice to be transferred or terminated.
It was information that Dr. Wyatt reported in his official capacity about abuses of animals that led The Humane Society of the United States to conduct an undercover investigation (unbeknownst to Wyatt) at the Bushway plant last year. One of our investigators was hired as a floor cleaner at the plant, and he obtained hidden camera footage of baby calves being tormented -- repeatedly shocked, kicked, and even having a hoof cut off while conscious and being skinned alive. After The HSUS shared the footage with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA shut down the plant and asked the Office of Inspector General to conduct a criminal investigation.
"Food integrity and humane handling whistleblowers should not have to rely on an undercover video investigation in order for USDA supervisors to take their disclosures seriously," Dr. Wyatt told the subcommittee yesterday. "It seems almost unbelievable to me," he said, "but I have been ignored by my own people and have suffered physically, emotionally, and financially in the process. More importantly, animal welfare and food safety have suffered as well."
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, who has been on the job for about a year, is very attentive to enforcement issues and seems determined to turn this situation around. That's critical, and long overdue for an agency that has become dangerously close to the industry it is charged with regulating. The meat industry has forever called the shots at USDA, and profits handsomely from an array of federal subsidies. But it is essential for animal welfare and food safety that the USDA take an independent and principled approach to enforcement of humane handling rules at the slaughter plants, and really focus on the details, in order to prevent the horrible cruelties that The HSUS has documented at Bushway and at the Westland/Hallmark slaughter plant in Chino, Calif.
Dr. Wyatt's experiences highlight how some District Office managers at the FSIS are themselves a major part of the problem, as they undermine inspectors' efforts to enforce humane slaughter rules. The culture throughout FSIS must shift to acknowledge that humane treatment is a core, ongoing responsibility, not just something to address when an undercover investigation shines a spotlight on the issue. Industry typically reacts to investigative findings by treating them as just a few bad apples, but wherever we have looked we have found serious abuses. I underscored that point yesterday in testimony I delivered after Dr. Wyatt spoke.
Also supporting the major findings of The HSUS's testimony was the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which released a report yesterday sharply critical of the USDA system for failing to adequately enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). The GAO found that the USDA "does not have a comprehensive strategy for enforcing HMSA" and therefore "...is not well positioned to improve its ability to enforce HMSA."
The GAO stated that enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is inconsistent, in part due to a lack of clarity in the guidance the USDA provides to its inspectors. It also cited inadequate training, finding that inspectors at half of the USDA-inspected slaughterhouses were not able to correctly identify basic facts about signs of sensibility in animals.
This is not the first time the GAO has urged the USDA to make improvements. In January 2004, the office recommended that the USDA establish clear, specific, and consistent criteria for enforcement when a slaughter plant repeatedly violates the law. The GAO now reports that the UDSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., has not yet responded effectively to this recommendation.
Secretary Vilsack has made strong statements about humane slaughter enforcement and taken swift action to suspend operations at Bushway. Now it is time for him to demand a zero-tolerance policy for lax enforcement and supervisor interference at all of America's slaughter plants.
This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.