Inhumane Slaughter: Meat Plant Malpractice
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
The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Mr.
Moreno. But too often they were not.
"They blink. They make noises," he said softly. "The head moves,
the eyes are wide and looking around."
Still Mr. 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," said Mr. Moreno, "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 some plants do not always stun
properly, 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 slaughterhouses, ranging from the smallest, custom
butcheries to modern, automated establishments such as the
sprawling IBP Inc. plant here where Mr. 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. While 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 the Humane Society. The dismissal
letter sent to the technician, Tim Walker, said his disclosure had
"irreparably damaged" the agency's relations with the packing
"I complained to everyone - I said, 'Lookit, they're skinning live
cows in there,' " Mr. Walker said. "Always it was the same
answer: 'We know it's true. But there's nothing we can do about
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
Some inspectors are so frustrated they are asking outsiders for
help: The inspectors union urged Washington state authorities last
spring to crack down on alleged animal abuse at the IBP plant in
Pasco. In a statement, IBP said that problems described by
workers in its Washington state plant "do not accurately represent
the way we operate our plants."
"We take the issue of proper livestock handling very seriously," the
But the union complained that new government policies and faster
production speeds at the plant had "significantly hampered our
ability to ensure compliance." Several animal welfare groups joined
in the petition.
"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. "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 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection
Service 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 to improve 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 that it would require suppliers to follow the meat
INDUSTRY GROUPS acknowledge that sloppy killing has
tangible consequences for consumers as well as 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 product, according to industry estimates.
Industry officials say they also recognize an ethical imperative to
treat animals with compassion.
"Handling animals humanely," said J. Patrick Boyle, the president
of the American Meat Institute, "is just the right thing to do.
Clearly, not all plants have gotten the message. Government
inspectors halted production for a day at the Calhoun Packing Co.
beef plant in Palestine, Texas, after inspectors saw cattle being
improperly stunned. "They were still conscious and had good
reflexes," wrote B.V. Swamy, a veterinarian and senior
Department of Agriculture official at the plant. The shift supervisor
"allowed the cattle to be hung anyway." IBP, which owned the
plant at the time, contested the findings but "took steps to resolve
the situation," including installing video equipment and increasing
training, a spokesman said. IBP has since sold the plant.
Hogs, unlike cattle, are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are
stunned to soften the hides 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.
Department of Agriculture 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. Those problems were identified five years ago
in an industry-wide audit by Temple Grandin, an assistant
professor with Colorado State University's animal sciences
In the early 1990s, Ms. Grandin developed the first objective
standards for treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, which were
adopted by the American Meat Institute, the industry's largest
trade group. Her initial survey in 1996, funded by the Department
of Agriculture, was one of the first attempts to grade slaughter
One finding was a high failure rate among beef plants that use
stunning devices known as "captive-bolt" guns.
Ms. Grandin said that high production speeds can trigger problems
when people and equipment are pushed beyond their capacity.
From a typical kill rate of 50 cattle an hour in the early 1900s,
production speeds rose dramatically in the 1980s. They now
approach 400 per hour in the newest plants.
Industry trade groups acknowledge that improperly stunned
animals contribute to worker injuries in an industry that already
claims the country's highest rate of job-related injuries and
illnesses: about 27 percent a year. At some plants, "dead" animals
have inflicted so many broken limbs and teeth that workers wear
chest pads and hockey masks.
"The live cows cause a lot of injuries," said Martin Fuentes, an IBP
worker whose arm was kicked and shattered by a dying cow.
"The line is never stopped simply because an animal is alive."
At IBP's Pasco complex, live cattle emerge from a narrow chute
to be dispatched in a process known as "knocking" or "stunning."
On most days the chamber is manned by a pair of Mexican
immigrants who speak little English and earn about $9 an hour for
killing up to 2,050 head per shift.
The tool of choice is the captive-bolt gun, which fires a retractable
metal rod into the steer's forehead. An effective stunning requires a
precision shot, which workers must deliver hundreds of times daily
to balky, frightened animals that frequently weigh 1,000 pounds
(450 kilograms) or more. Within 12 seconds of entering the
chamber, the fallen steer is shackled to a moving chain to be bled
and butchered by other workers on the line. The hitch, IBP
workers say, is that some "stunned" cattle wake up.
"If you put a knife into the cow, it's going to make a noise: It says,
'Moo!' " said Mr. Moreno, who began working in the stockyard
last year. "They move the head and the eyes and the leg like the
cow wants to walk."