Congressman promises “relentless” oversight after FSIS veterinarian blows whistle on humane handling and food safety violations

Congressional oversight subcommittee chairman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) is vowing to increase oversight over USDA meat safety after a Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) veterinarian blew the whistle on his supervisors for ignoring violations of food safety and humane slaughter laws.

Dean Wyatt, who has been an FSIS public health veterinarian for 18 years, outlined violations of the Humane Slaughter Act he witnessed on the job before the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy last week.  According to Wyatt, his attempts to enforce the law were thwarted by “well-paid public health officials.”

Wyatt cited Seaboard Farms in Oklahoma a half dozen times for non-compliance. The facility was written up for shackling and bleeding out pigs while they were conscious, aggressively unloading animals, and allowing pigs to slip and trample one another. Both the company and FSIS supervisors pushed back against Wyatt’s reports.

“FSIS officials who were hundreds of miles away simply took company personnel at their word that the egregious events I had personally witnessed did not justify my actions,” Wyatt said in his testimony before lawmakers.

Wyatt’s allegations were supported by Government Accountability Office (GAO) findings released at the hearing. The GAO found FSIS enforcement of humane slaughter laws to be inconsistent.

“Inconsistent” may be putting it lightly.

According to Wyatt, he not only faced resistance within the USDA’s food safety agency for issuing non-compliance reports, he faced retaliation. Wyatt was “berated” by the district office manager for his enforcement actions. He was told he had to transfer or face termination, so Wyatt headed to Vermont.

In his new turf, Wyatt oversaw Bushway Packing, where he witnessed even more egregious violations.  Bushway employees dragged and even tossed young calves too weak to walk. Wyatt again tried to enforce the law and again met resistance and retaliation from his supervisors.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) eventually caught graphic footage of animal mistreatment at Bushway, providing horrific evidence to back up to Wyatt’s continued complaints. Upon release of the footage–which depicted the skinning and decapitating of conscious week-old calves–Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shut down the plant and ordered a criminal investigation.

Though Wyatt has since gained support from high level officials at USDA, his experience highlights systemic problems at FSIS. “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,” said Wyatt in his testimony before the committee.

The agency’s problems–highlighted by both Wyatt and the GAO–raise serious concerns about food safety, as well as animal rights.

“Is there a connection, in your professional opinion, between humane handing and the safety of food which people consume?” subcommittee chairman Kucinich asked Jerold Mande, deputy under secretary for food safety at FSIS.  “Would you eat meat where the calves were treated like that? Would you consume those products?  Isn’t at some point this a health issue?”

Mande indicated he does believe there is a link between humane treatment and safety. “I think when companies violate the humane slaughter act it’s a demonstration that they don’t have control over their processes,” he told the committee.  “It raises a question on how they can control their food safety processes.”

Wyatt agrees. “If they’re not following their humane handling practices they’re probably not following their HACCP plans.”

Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, who also testified in the hearing, highlighted similar concerns. “Downer animals roll around in feces and that can encourage or bring about E. coli,” she said.

“We know E. coli, mad cow disease, and other problems are associated with the mistreatment and mishandling of animals,” Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS, told the committee.

Though Kucinich made it a point to tell witnesses he does not eat meat and does not believe in humane slaughter–he says “it’s a contradiction of terms”–he will take an active role in ensuring current regulations are followed.

“For those Americans who do consume those food products, and who rely on the government to make sure that those products are safe, this subcommittee will relentlessly pursue the food safety issues, and the industry can count on that.”