Bushway Packing Inc., a veal operation that was forced to close last October after a Humane Society video showed veal calves being treated in a manner that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called, “deplorable” and “unequivocally unacceptable,” is set to reopen under a new name.

The dairy calf slaughter plant was closed after the Humane Society of the United States presented video evidence of newborn calves being dragged, kicked, shocked, and skinned while conscious to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the state of Vermont.  Upon release of the footage, which also showed the decapitating of conscious week-old calves, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shut down the plant and ordered a criminal investigation.

The problems at Bushway were discussed at a House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy hearing last month.  At the hearing, Dean Wyatt, who spent part of his 18 years as a Food Safety and Inspection Service public health veterinarian at Bushway Packing, outlined violations of the Humane Slaughter Act he witnessed on the job. 

According to Wyatt, his attempts to enforce the law were thwarted by “well-paid public health officials.”

“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.

In a public statement, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, expressed concern over the USDA’s decision to allow the slaughter plant to reopen, saying, “The USDA’s decision to allow the slaughter plant to reopen–under a new name and without former plant owner Frank Perretta–after nearly five months of being shut down raises serious concerns for The [Humane Society].

“Two of Peretta’s former partners, Terry Rooney and John McCracken, have been allowed to reopen the slaughter plant.  However, Mr. Rooney was on the slaughter plant floor almost every day the plant operated, and it was on the stunning floor where so many abuses occurred. … And it was Mr. McCracken’s hauling company that off-loaded the calves.  [A Humane Society] investigator filmed the driver dragging calves by their ears and shocking them repeatedly when they could not stand.  The re-opening of Bushway under a new name will not please anyone who watches the [Humane Society] video of the egregious suffering endured by ‘downer’ calves unable to walk and often covered in feces.”

Peter Langrock, a Middlebury-based lawyer who represents Bushway Packing, responded to Pacelle’s statement, saying his clients had been mischaracterized. 

“McCracken and Rooney are typical, good-hearted Vermonters,” he said. “They would never deliberately hurt an animal in any way. Unfortunately, there is no good way to slaughter calves.”

Before it can reopen as Champlain Valley Meats, Inc., FSIS and the new owners have come to an agreement that the Bushway Packing facilities will be improved.  In addition, the facility will be audited by an outside firm on a regular basis and employees will receive special training on humane treatment of animals. 

Michael Markarian, chief operating officer at the Humane Society, told the Burlington Free Press, “If our most severe punishment is a temporary closure with an opportunity to reopen later, we don’t believe that’s a very strong deterrent.  There should be fines available, and there should be potential jail time for people who engage in this behavior.  The state, we understand, is still investigating.”

“This case demonstrates that the enforcement mechanisms of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act need to be dramatically enhanced,” added Pacelle.  “We urge the USDA to use this case as a basis to improve oversight at slaughter plants nationally and to close the loophole that still allows downer calves to be slaughtered for food.  And we hope Congress will upgrade the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to include more meaningful deterrents for violations than a temporary suspension of plant operations.  Civil fines and criminal penalties are needed.  If there are not sufficient financial or criminal consequences for slaughter plant owners, operators, and employees, there will be little incentive to follow the very modest rules entailed in the Act.  We also encourage the State of Vermont to aggressively investigate, and, where warranted, prosecute any potential violations of state animal cruelty laws.”

Domestic Policy Subcommittee chairman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) vowed to increase oversight over USDA meat safety at last week’s hearing.

See:  Humane Society Video Closes Veal Plant, Oct 31, 2009 and USDA Vet Blows Whistle on Food Safety Agency, Mar 10, 2010.