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25 August 2010 Issue

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Investigation: Food That's Not Safe To Eat

Workers Allege That a Meat Packer is Slaughtering Animals Before They're Dead

David Case is a reporter for WWW.TOMPAINE.COM

Julio Rodriguez skins cows at a slaughterhouse. It is hard, gruesome work, but that's not what bothers him. He's done it for over six years.

Rodriguez (not his real name) has testified against his employer - putting his job and his family's security at risk - because he says the slaughterhouse is skinning and dismembering live cows. He alleges that at the plant -an IBP facility that a New York Times reporter described as "a hulking concrete complex [where] the powerful smell of dead meat hangs in the air"--management is in so much of a rush to turn cattle into sirloin that it won't slow down enough to properly kill the animals.

Normally, a worker known as a "knocker" stuns the cow by driving a steel bolt into its head. Other workers hang the cow by its hoof from chains, and slit its jugular vein (by law, the animal must die from bleeding) before it proceeds down a disassembly line where it is skinned, eviscerated, and dismembered. But as Rodriguez states in an affidavit, at the IBP slaughterhouse in Wallula, Washington, the cattle are processed so quickly that they're put on the line while they're still conscious. They're cut up, he says, while they're literally alive and kicking.

"You notice cows are alive because they're making noises and they try to kick a lot. And when workers try to stick the knife in the cow, they're trying to kick and sometimes they have to stick the knife in between their legs to cut their nerves so they won't be moving, they won't be trying to kick," Rodriguez testified.

Another worker, who has been at the plant for more than a decade, said that because of the chain speed, workers cut "the legs, the stomach, the neck, [and] cut off the feet while the cow is breathing."

"The cattle go down the line for many minutes and they're still alive," the worker testified.

Rodriguez's affidavit is part of a petition that alleges that "roughly 10 to perhaps 30 percent" of the animals at the IBP plant "proceed through the skinning and dismemberment process in a fully conscious state." It also states that workers have been injured, "kicked by frantic animals moving along the conveyor [and] suffer[ing] contusions, serious stab wounds, and lost fingers and teeth."

Workers have also videotaped struggling animals hung from slaughterhouse chains and skinned while they are still alive. Some of the video was featured on a Seattle NBC affiliate KING 5 news report.

The petition, filed with the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Attorney General, was spearheaded by the Humane Farming Association, and signed by a legion of public interest groups, including the Government Accountability Project and the Humane Society. It included videotape as well as over a dozen affidavits from workers, several of which were obtained by .

IBP strongly denies the allegations. "We are extremely concerned by what we saw on the videotape and do not condone the livestock handling practices that were shown," the company wrote in a statement. The company says that it has training programs and a system in place to assure proper slaughter. Since the allegations were made public it has installed "surveillance cameras to provide continuous oversight of animal handling practices." Implying that disgruntled employees may have intentionally strung up the live cattle to harm the company, IBP stated that it would also investigate the possibility that the workers may have "mishandled the cattle for the camera's benefit."

Rosemary Mucklow, the Executive Director of the National Meat Association (of which IBP is not a member) says "I seriously doubt that what was alleged actually happened." After stunning, she says, cattle will exhibit "certain muscle reflexes-legs may shudder or jump. These are reflexes, and will happen several minutes after the animal is dead." But, she says, the animal will feel nothing.

Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, an expert on livestock handling that IBP flew in on a corporate jet as the allegations were unfolding, says she was disturbed by the videotape. "There's definitely some bad stuff on that tape. I'm not defending IBP. There was a live cow hung upside down from the chain and another on the ground in the stunning box. These are definitely bad things."

As the company reported in a press release, Dr. Grandin "found that cattle were being stunned and slaughtered properly at the plant." But in an interview, she stresses that she also found a number of problems. "By the time I get there of course they're on their best behavior," she says. But before stunning, "there was still balking and backing up, and [workers were] prodding the cattle with an electric prod," implying that the cattle were not properly handled. Well-handled cattle - which do not understand death, according to Dr. Grandin - will enter the stunning box calmly. Maintaining that calmness is essential to assuring that the animals are properly stunned.

But Grandin stresses that she highly doubts that IBP was slaughtering live animals. "Cutting up live cattle - that's something that has not been happening" in recent years, or at large-scale facilities. It is extremely unlikely to happen in a big plant like IBP's, she says, in part because of the way such a plant is set up, and in part because it would pose so much danger to employees that they would immediately revolt. "The worst thing that could have happened was that the live animal on the video could have been bled live, but he could not have been dismembered alive."

While Washington State officials refuse to comment while the investigation is underway, an attorney at the Washington state attorney general's office commented that the "allegations are very serious and they are taken seriously," and that officials are working to determine whether they are true. Following the video and petition, a team of federal and state inspectors conducted an inspection of the plant, and found "no current evidence" of wrongdoing.

Gary Dahl, a USDA inspector who has ten years experience on a kill floor and who viewed the tapes says "There was some stuff that was inconclusive, where I couldn't make a determination. But clearly other animals appeared to be alive. I saw one animal that was clearly tortured."

Gary Valen of the Humane Society, a signatory on the petition, said that his organization has not directly investigated the Wallula plant, but he believes that the allegations are highly credible. According to Valen, an ongoing Humane Society investigation suggests that the problems documented in the petition from fast slaughter line speed are neither unique to the IBP plant nor uncommon in the U.S.


The workers' testimony is a dramatic example of a problem that concerns many who watch the meat processing industry: ever-escalating speed in the nation's slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities.

Under a new inspection system implemented by the USDA which has been phased in over the last few years, plants have much greater control over their operations.

The new system was an effort to improve food safety, and there is some evidence that it is working. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food contamination annually causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths and costs the nation $37 billion.

A recent CDC study has indicated that the new system appears to have reduced that toll. Another study, by the USDA, found a reduction in the incidence of salmonella in meat, evidence that the food supply is getting cleaner, the Department insists.

To the meat industry, the new program is a long-awaited move away from government command and control oversight, enabling companies to determine for themselves how to achieve food safety. "It's a paradigm shift -- [now] it's the industry's responsibility to produce safe, wholesome meat, and it's the government's responsibility to make sure the industry does that," explains the National Meat Association's Mucklow.

In practice, that means that USDA inspectors are essentially shifting away from a traditional inspection model of checklists and direct oversight of an entire processing line, towards reviewing microbe data collected by the company and performing occasional spot checks on carcasses.

Yet in handing over control to the companies the Department removed traditional safety measures and some of the checks by government inspectors that industry long complained slowed down operations. Under the new system, companies are now free to decide for themselves how to produce safe food. Many companies choose to sterilize the meat toward the end of the line rather than taking the extra time to prevent contamination in the first place.

That, in turn has enabled them to work more quickly, fueling a race to turn cattle, chicken and pigs into meat at an unprecedented clip. Some meat packers are making record profits without raising prices at the supermarket.

But critics say the speed of processing is endangering not only animals and workers, but also possibly consumers, despite the figures cited by USDA and CDC. They contend that fast food processing means sloppy processing that exacerbates contamination from pathogens. Food-borne illness, they argue, has decreased not because of better slaughtering, but because the industry is dousing the food with more chemicals than ever.

Representatives of the workers at the Wallula plant have alleged that the pressure to work fast is so great that they don't have time to clean off a piece of meat when it falls on the floor. They complain that, in the slaughter department, if they get feces on their hands they don't have enough time to wash off, so they end up contaminating every animal they touch. They say that when they cut into an abscess they don't have time to properly sanitize the ensuing contamination (abscesses hidden within the meat tend to explode when workers cut through them, soiling adjacent meat and workers). Instead, they say, they hastily wipe down the area and continue working.

At the IBP plant, the petition alleges that "as conscious cattle move down the production line, their thrashing causes sterile muscle tissue to become contaminated by feces and other adulterants. Workers' ability to trim contaminants from animals is severely compromised by both animal movements and increased line speeds." Such contamination, which occurs during evisceration or skinning (animals often bring manure from the feed lots into the slaughterhouse on their hides), can be the source of much food-borne illness.

Again, IBP disputes the claims. In a written response, the company states "These appear to be the same false, union created allegations we have heard before. First, it is a known biological fact that an animal can continue to make involuntary movements after it has died. The untrained observer may misinterpret this as a sign of life. Second, there is no such movement taking place when the animal is skinned and the trimming process begins. Third, the hide is still on when these 'involuntary movements' occur. There is no exposed flesh or sterile tissue that can be contaminated from such thrashing."

The company indicates that line speed policy, determined by industrial engineers, allows time to sanitize product and work areas that might be contaminated by feces or abscesses, and that management constantly monitors to make sure that sanitary procedures are followed.

It's not just workers who complain about food contamination. USDA inspectors say that the line speed means that they're now expected somehow to oversee the safety of meat that is traveling past them at speeds of two or three birds per second. "It's pretty much a steady stream," says Alvin Sewell, of the inspector's union. "Imagine doing that for eight hours."

They also complain that they no longer have access to the whole slaughter or processing line as they used to. And when they see violations of good sanitation practices, they have lost much of their authority to take action. Instead, they're told to let the plant's self-inspection program work.

At the IBP plant in Wallula, for example, workers say that the inspectors seldom visit the area where the cattle are killed. The inspectors' union blames that, in part, on the new system. "Dramatic increases in line speeds and new inspection policies which significantly reduce our enforcement authority; and little to no access to the areas of the plants where animals are killed, have all significantly hampered our ability to ensure" proper slaughtering practices, according to Arthur C. Hughes of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.

Chemical baths and steam treatments can later neutralize some or all of the contamination that may make its way past workers. But not everyone agrees that this technical fix is the best solution.

Even with chemical sterilization, according to Felicia Nestor of the Government Accountability Project, allowing the meat to be exposed to feces makes it much more likely that consumers will get sick. "It's an age old concept that you control contamination during the butchering of the animal," she says. But instead, we allow meat to become contaminated "because it's much faster, you can slaughter more animals. But it's a net loss for food safety. It means either more deadly contamination or more chemically sterilized contamination - which has its own drawbacks - in the food."

Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), an advocacy group made up of parents and friend of food-borne illness victims, agrees that meat packers are working too fast. "The line speeds are too fast, they're doing things too quickly. The meat packers want the numbers in order to generate profit, but they're doing things too quickly and that's when the problems occur." In 1993, Donley lost her only child, who was six years old, to E.coli O157:H7 from hamburger. To her outrage, the meat carried the USDA seal of approval.

Tragedies like Donley's helped inspire the USDA to improve the nation's food inspection system, which had changed little since President Theodore Roosevelt introduced it at the turn of the twentieth century. Many food safety advocates agree that there have been some improvements under the new system.

One such improvement is pathogenic testing - applauded as a first step in complimenting the timeworn poke and sniff methods with real science. The Department has also declared a zero tolerance for E.coli, and it may soon phase in more formal testing regimes for pathogens, like listeria and campylobacter, the latter of which is the nation's most common cause of food-borne illness.

While the pathogenic testing is currently far from comprehensive (inspectors typically test at most one specimen per day for salmonella, and a plant may go months without a single test) it has helped clean up the food supply by "putting the fear of God in the meat packing industry," as one observer puts it. Many corporations have invested in technology to ensure compliance. For example, while salmonella is still present in about 10 percent of chickens, it's down by half since over the past two years, according to a USDA study.

Those improvements aside, critics say that under the new system USDA has largely relinquished its authority for food inspections. They say the program is a corporate honor system riddled with conflicts of interest.

According to critics, the new program transfers the burden of food safety from trained and independent government inspectors to employees who may not receive adequate training. More importantly, experience has shown that vigilant company inspectors can be intimidated by management. GAP's Nestor, who often works with whistleblowers, says "the vast majority of inspectors say that often company employees will secretly tell them" about company wrongdoings, a fact that illustrates how management pressure on company inspectors can foil the system.

"The government says if you have a [self-inspection] program we won't inspect you as much," says Bill Marler, a lawyer with Marler Clarke, a firm that has represented many food-borne illness victims. "That's a mistake-there has to still be strong government oversight. Very few companies are going to report their own violations."

For its part, USDA denies that inspections have been scaled back, or that inspector authority has been curbed.

But an audit by the department's inspector general, released on June 21, clearly states that the department needs to do more to ensure food safety under the new program. The audit faulted the inspection service for not adequately testing for pathogens in the food supply, for relinquishing too much of its authority and for lacking a system of financial penalties for unsafe plants. It concluded that the inspection service "needs to command a more aggressive presence in the inspection and verification process," and that it has "reduced its oversight short of what is prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."

The bottom line, according to Randy Wurtle of the inspectors' union, is that fewer people are getting sick because of what the USDA refers to as "interventions." He says "the plants are producing much filthier, dirtier meat, but they're using a greater mass of chemicals. If consumers knew what they were doing-if they knew they were eating sanitized feces-they wouldn't be happy."

source: David Case is a reporter for WWW.TOMPAINE.COM

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