Wednesday, January 24, 2001
Washington is investigating the IBP meatpacking plant after a secretly shot video shows cows kicking while being butchered
By Jim Lynch of The Oregonian staff
WALLULA, Wash. — A clandestine video shot inside the Northwest’s biggest meatpacking plant has alarmed people from as far away as Switzerland and triggered a seven-month investigation by Washington state authorities.
The video shows upside-down cows kicking and seemingly struggling to release their hooves from an overhead chain winding through a slaughterhouse near the Tri-Cities. It also shows an electric prod being jammed down a cow’s mouth. Armed with the video and supporting affidavits from 23 workers at the IBP Inc. plant, the San Francisco-based Humane Farming Association asserts that many of the cows that enter the plant are being butchered while they are still conscious.
The federal humane slaughter law requires that all the cows be rendered “insensible to pain” before they are butchered. Some reflexive kicking may occur, but cows shouldn’t be mooing, nodding and blinking while they’re getting cut.
The Washington State Patrol, with the help of two other state agencies, hopes to conclude its investigation this month into whether slaughter or animal cruelty laws were violated. A Walla Walla County prosecutor then will decide whether to press charges.
Gary Mickelson, spokesman for IBP, the world’s largest beef and pork producer, suggests the allegations are “residue” from a June 1999 strike at the plant in which workers walked off the job, alleging that an unreasonably fast production line caused worker and food-safety hazards. Mickelson said that while the company is “extremely concerned” about the animal treatment depicted in the video, it is not representative of the way cattle are treated at the plant, where 1,400 workers butcher about 300 cows an hour. “IBP takes the issue of proper livestock handling very seriously,” he said.
Interviews with three former and two current plant workers last week indicate cattle-handling procedures may have improved slightly since the video aired regionally in June, but that problems persist.
They say “the chain” — production line — still moves too fast to give “the knocker” enough time to adequately stun cows senseless with a hand-held device that thrusts a steel bolt into their skulls.
One slaughterhouse worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing a job he’s held for almost a decade, said he saw 14 “live cows” wiggle through the butchering stations last Wednesday. He mimicked their antics, rolling his head and torso and blinking. He estimated one cow struggled for 10 minutes. “This cow had no back feet and 70 percent of its skin gone, and it had to be stunned again,” he said, through a Spanish-speaking interpreter. “This allegation is simply not true,” Mickelson said, adding that “we have not received any employee complaint about any such incident.”
To demonstrate its diligence on the humane slaughter issue, IBP paid Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor and national expert on animal treatment at slaughterhouses, to inspect the Wallula plant last summer. Grandin, who has designed stockyards for 25 years and inspected 50 plants during the past five years, said she saw no live cows on the chain when she visited the IBP plant, which sits alone atop a cattle-freckled knoll between Pasco and Walla Walla.
Grandin said workers exercised good cow-stunning protocol during the three hours she was there, but she didn’t like the way the cattle were led to slaughter. Noisy chute doors, poor lighting and bad traction needlessly alarmed cows, she said. As a result, the animals backed up, requiring the use
of electrical prods, which made them jumpy and more difficult to stun. “When a good plant is working right, (cows) just walk up the chute and bang, they’re done,” she said. “It’s no more stressful than vaccinations in the feed yard.” But with bad management or bad equipment, she said, “it can be a nightmare.”
Grandin says IBP’s plants vary in quality. “Some of their plants are excellent,” she said. How would she rank the Wallula plant? “Bad,” she said, noting, however, that the controversial video unfairly tarnished the entire industry.
“This is a plant that just really messed up,” Grandin said. “But to imply the whole industry is hanging live cattle is just wrong.”
Grandin said she knew the chain was running slower than normal when she inspected the Wallula plant, something workers also confirmed.
Whenever inspectors arrive, the chain is slowed by 10 percent to 20 percent to give workers time to do their jobs well, workers claim. Electrical prods are used less often, too, said Adelaido Ramirez, whose jobs at the Wallula plant included coaxing the cattle into the slaughterhouse before an injury forced him to leave the plant earlier this year.
IBP’s Mickelson said the company heeded Grandin’s suggestions and made some modifications. Workers confirmed that noisy doors were replaced and that tread was altered to improve traction.
Gail Eisnitz, an investigator for the Humane Farming Association, an animal rights advocacy group, began examining the Wallula plant after she heard striking workers had complained that the chain was moving so fast that they were forced to work on live cows.
Eisnitz argues in her 1997 book, “Slaughterhouse: The shocking story of greed, neglect and inhumane treatment inside the U.S. meat industry,” that unreasonable production speeds are not only hard on animals and workers, but also responsible for the rise of food-safety concerns such as deadly E. coli bacteria. (IBP has had several E. coli-related beef recalls since 1998, including three in one two-month stretch last summer, but none involved beef from the Wallula plant.)
After interviewing workers about the plant’s problems, Eisnitz asked one to sneak a camera into the plant. She also collected workers’ affidavits, excerpts of which she included in a May 31 petition to Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
“The chain goes too fast, more than 300 cows an hour,” according to one worker’s signed affidavit. “If I can’t get the animal knocked right, it keeps going. The chain doesn’t stop. . . . The cows are getting hung alive or not alive. They keep coming in.”
Another worker signed a statement for Eisnitz that included this observation: “Sometimes the supervisor comes and works on the live cows. They don’t want workers to stop the chain, so when the live cows are really active, workers are supposed to honk the horn and the supervisor will come to help them skin the live cow. I would estimate that one out of ten cows is still alive when it’s bled and skinned.”
IBP’s Mickelson pointed out that even the video doesn’t show cows being skinned alive. He also says the line speed hasn’t increased since the early 1990s.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, charged with inspecting meat and enforcing humane slaughter laws, interviewed Wallula workers in June 1999. Copies of workers’ responses, obtained by The Oregonian, indicate the USDA was repeatedly told about live cows and unsanitary conditions.
But Helmut Blume, the USDA’s Northwest district manager, pointed out that his 10 slaughterhouse inspectors at Wallula have found only minor problems at the plant over the years. He calls the plant’s performance record average. “I don’t want to say that never anything goes wrong in the place,” Blume
said. But he questioned the legitimacy of the controversial video, parts of which were later aired on KING-TV in Seattle and in San Francisco. “If any one of our inspectors had seen that, the plant would not be operating.” However, the union that represents 6,000 USDA food inspectors nationwide, supported the Humane Farming Association’s petition to the state, asserting that reduced access to slaughterhouses and increased production speeds make plants harder to police.
Interviews with Washington state investigators indicate the inquiry has been awkward and difficult. When investigators performed their “surprise” inspection in June, they had to wait for more than a half-hour before they were allowed into the slaughterhouse.
Bill Brookreson, deputy director of the state Agriculture Department, one of three agencies participating in the investigation, said he didn’t consider the wait unreasonable.
IBP, which denied a request by The Oregonian for a tour of the plant, has installed its own cameras in its Wallula slaughterhouse. “They confirm that livestock continue to be properly stunned and slaughtered,” Mickelson said. Meanwhile, animal-rights groups continue to rally their members to pressure Washington state officials to take action against the company, with more than 20,000 cards and a thousand letters and e-mails from as far away as Argentina and Switzerland.
You can reach Jim Lynch at The Oregonian’s Puget Sound bureau at 360-867-9503,