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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 7 May 2001 Issue:

Washington Post
'piece by piece'.

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 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," Moreno said, "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 slaughter-houses, 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. Although 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 a humane society.

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 year.

"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 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 on both industry and regulators to impove 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.

Industry groups ackowledge that sloppy killing has tangible consequences for consumers as well as for 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 products, according to industry estimates.

Industy officials say they also recognize an ethical imperative to treat animals 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 comsume increasing numbers of them.


Clearly, not all plants have gotten the message.

A Washington 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 enforcement documents 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 from those of others in the industry.

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 the USDA, the company said it fired the stunner and increased monitoring of slaughtering.

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 the USDA.

Hogs, unlike cattle, are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are stunned, to soften the hide 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.

Preventing this kind of suffering is officially a top priority for the USDA's 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 each idle minute.

In reality, many inspectors describe humane slaughter as a blind spot:

Inspector's 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.

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 mention of humane slaughter from its list of rotating tasks for inspectors.


Based on a seven-month investigation, this two-part series reveals flaws in the U.S.government's meat safety net, which can lead to death as it did last summer in the case of 3-year old Bianna Kriefall of South Milwaukee. A joint effort with Dateline NBC examines the spread of deadly E. coli bacteria.

For additional local and national reporting on E.coli, go to: 

source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April, 11, 2001 by Joby Warrick

Return to Animals in Print 7 May 2001 Issue

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