Washington, D.C. — A USDA veterinarian's congressional testimony ignited new debate about animal welfare standards in slaughter plants.
Dr. Dean Wyatt, an FSIS supervisory public health veterinarian, told the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in early March, "I truly believe that the USDA inspector is the only advocate animals have in slaughter plants. When we turn our backs on the helpless, when we fail to speak on behalf of the voiceless, when we tolerate animal abuse and suffering, then the moral compass of a just and compassionate society is gone."
Protected under federal whistle-blower laws, Wyatt's testimony recounted numerous instances when upper-level FSIS management simply looked the other way when food safety and humane handling laws where broken.
FSIS management, Wyatt contends, told him, on many occasions, to "drastically cut back" the amount of time he was spending on humane handling enforcement."
Wyatt shutdown Bushway Packing in Vermont three times prior to the release of the now infamous October 2009 undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States documenting animal abuse at the processing plant. The video triggered calls for reform at FSIS.
Wyatt's testimony is backed up by a just-released GAO report challenging FSIS to improve its enforcement activities in U.S. slaughter plants.
In fact, the GAO report chides FSIS for its inconsistent, lax enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, for not having a comprehensive hiring strategy and for a lack of clarity in guidance and training of inspectors, reports Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment for GAO.
Jerold R. Mande, deputy undersecretary for Food Safety of USDA, told the subcommittee, "I want to assure you that we are deeply committed to the humane handling of livestock and to meeting our obligations to enforce HMSA at federally inspected establishments."
FSIS will respond to GAO's report, Mande says, and the department is making a series of improvements to its enforcement of animal-handling practices within slaughter facilities. It includes, Mande says, a scoring system to help evaluate the health of animals prior to slaughter. The system was devised by Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted authority on animal handling, Mande adds.
Each of FSIS' 15 district offices has a District Veterinary Medical Specialist who serves as an expert on humane handling issues. Their responsibilities include formal reviews of each slaughter plant as well as routine reviews of data. In addition, a slaughter plant cannot operate without a USDA agent on the premises.
When faced with egregious cases of animal abuse, Mande adds, an investigation typically ensues and action is taken, like with Bushway Packing. In fact, Mande contends, FSIS took immediate action in this case which includes an ongoing criminal investigation.
Committee chair Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-OH) introduced the hearing by playing the HSUS undercover video.
"After watching that, I wonder if there is such a thing as humane slaughter. I wonder if humane slaughter is just an oxymoron. The truth of the matter is we do not know how prevalent are the abuses documented by the Humane Society of the United States, and neither does USDA because of the significant deficiencies in the management of FSIS identified by GAO. My hope is that today's hearing will give us a clear picture of what the new administration plans to do to reform FSIS and improve the agency's track record in enforcing humane handling laws."