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Veterinarian, GAO call for reform of animal welfare, slaughterhouse standards at USDA

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Mar 05, 2010
Washington -- A USDA veterinarian delivered explosive testimony yesterday about illegal slaughterhouse practices in the United States.

Dr. Dean Wyatt, an FSIS supervisory public health veterinarian, told the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "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 whistleblower 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.

Wyatt described what he called egregious incidents of animal abuse including stabbing of conscious live pigs while shackled, multiple shockings and beatings of downed calves and cattle, among others.

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 slaughterhouse. The video triggered calls for reform.

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 and for not having a comprehensive hiring strategy, 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 the 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.

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.