Atelier 3, article 11

© Joby Warrick :
(from the Washington Post Service, April 12, 2001)

                                   Inhumane Slaughter: Meat Plant Malpractice 

                                  PASCO, Washington 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

                                  The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Mr.
                                  Moreno. But too often they were not.

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

                                  Still Mr. 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 Mr. 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 some plants do not always stun
                                  properly, 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 Mr. 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 disclosure had
                                  "irreparably damaged" the agency's relations with the packing

                                  "I complained to everyone - I said, 'Lookit, they're skinning live
                                  cows in there,' " Mr. 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 system that 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

                                  Some inspectors are so frustrated they are asking outsiders for
                                  help: The inspectors union urged Washington state authorities last
                                  spring to crack down on alleged animal abuse at the IBP plant in
                                  Pasco. In a statement, IBP said that 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," the
                                  company said.

                                  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. "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 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection
                                  Service says it has not relaxed its oversight. In January, the agency
                                  ordered a review of 100 slaughterhouses. An inspection service
                                  memo reminded its 7,600 inspectors they had an "obligation to
                                  ensure compliance" with humane-handling laws.

                                  The review comes as pressure grows 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 that it would require suppliers to follow the meat
                                  institute's standards.

                                  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
                                  treat animals with compassion.

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

                                  Clearly, not all plants have gotten the message. Government
                                  inspectors halted production for a day at the Calhoun Packing Co.
                                  beef plant in Palestine, Texas, after inspectors saw cattle being
                                  improperly stunned. "They were still conscious and had good
                                  reflexes," wrote B.V. Swamy, a veterinarian and senior
                                  Department of Agriculture official at the plant. 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.

                                  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.

                                  Department of Agriculture 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

                                  In the early 1990s, Ms. 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 survey in 1996, funded by the Department
                                  of Agriculture, was one of the first attempts to grade slaughter

                                  One finding was a high failure rate among beef plants that use
                                  stunning devices known as "captive-bolt" guns.

                                  Ms. Grandin said that 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.

                                  Industry trade groups acknowledge that improperly stunned
                                  animals contribute to worker injuries in an industry that already
                                  claims the country'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."

                                  At IBP's Pasco complex, 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
                                  (450 kilograms) 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 on the 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 Mr. Moreno, who began working in the stockyard
                                  last year. "They move the head and the eyes and the leg like the
                                  cow wants to walk."