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March 5, 2010

Whistleblower Testifies Against USDA

Dr. Dean Wyatt says the USDA retaliated against him for trying to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act


“Food integrity and humane handling whistleblowers should not have to rely on an undercover video investigation in order for USDA supervisors to take their disclosures seriously.”—Dr. Wyatt

by Gail Berrigan

In testimony before a House subcommittee hearing on March 4, Dr. Dean Wyatt, public health veterinarian for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA, expressed frustration about the USDA’s lack of support for inspectors who are “just trying to do their job” to protect animal welfare and food safety.

In his testimony, Dr. Wyatt said USDA officials not only overturned his recommendations, siding with slaughter plants in violation of federal law, but also personally retaliated against him for trying to enforce the law. Dr. Wyatt, who has been with the USDA for 18 years, was reprimanded and threatened with termination by his supervisors after reporting repeated violations of the USDA’s Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA).

Wyatt spoke about suspending operations at the Bushway Packing slaughter plant in Vermont on three occasions for improper handling of animals; each time district officials for the Agency reopened the plant and allowed it to continue without addressing humane handling concerns. Violations included dragging a “downed” calf off a truck by the hind leg and dragging a days-old calf through a holding pen. In another instance, Wyatt described an Agency official changing the wording in a written report to suggest an animal had been “dropped” rather than thrown off of a truck.

After an undercover video investigation was conducted by The HSUS at the Bushway Packing plant, the USDA closed the plant for violations of the HMSA. A criminal investigation into conduct at the slaughterhouse is underway.

Thursday’s hearing coincided with the release by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of a report that encouraged stronger enforcement of the HMSA. Specific recommendations included establishing “clear and specific” criteria for suspending plant operations; improving standards for compliance; and taking a closer look at noncompliance reports.

Under the HMSA, FSIS inspectors are charged with overseeing humane handling of animals and with conducting fecal contamination checks to prevent contaminated meat from entering the food supply. Animals forced or dragged across slaugherhouse yards and floors can be exposed to feces and contaminated. Downer animals too sick to stand or walk are prohibited by law from entering the food supply due to the potential threat of mad cow disease.

In 2008, an HSUS investigation into the processing of downed cows at the Hallmark Meat Packing slaughter plant in Chino, Calif. led the USDA to close the plant and recall 143 million pounds of beef. The Chino plant was the second largest supplier of beef to the nation’s school lunch program.

Stanley Painter, representing the union of government food inspection workers (National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions), testified that he concurred with Dr. Wyatt’s assessment that the USDA did not provide adequate support or training for inspectors at the nation’s slaughter plants.

Speaking before the subcommittee, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said he was heartened by the new Administration’s willingness to take humane concerns seriously. He went on to say that slaughter plant violations are chronic: “Every time we have looked, we have found problems.”

Pacelle recommended that the USDA create its own mobile investigations unit and enforce a policy of “zero percent tolerance” for abuses and inhumane handling, citing the billions of animals and hundreds of millions of consumers who rely on the USDA for proper enforcement of the HMSA.

Pacelle also called on the USDA to close the loophole on downer calves. The Obama Administration closed the loophole on downer cows following The HSUS’s Hallmark investigation, but a loophole that applies to young animals still exists.

In his closing remarks, subcommittee chairman Dennis Kucinich thanked Dr. Wyatt for his public service and his courage to blow the whistle on the USDA, as well as The HSUS for sharing the results of its undercover investigations. Citing its conflicts of interest, Kucinich encouraged the USDA to do more to protect consumers and promised to continue to press for changes that will lead to greater consumer confidence in the USDA.
 

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