Group Slams Vt. Slaughter Operation

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/7/2017 12:44:18 AM
Modified: 5/8/2017 3:43:08 PM

North Springfield, Vt. — A slaughterhouse that has had its operations briefly suspended four times in the last six months by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of inhumane treatment of animals said it has corrected the problems with new equipment and training but a Washington animal welfare organization wants a wider investigation and is asking the USDA to withdraw its inspection service.

Vermont Packinghouse, which has been in operation for three years and employs 50, was first suspended last October, then again in January, March and April. In each instance, according to notices sent to the company from the USDA Field Safety Inspection Service’s Philadelphia office, company employees failed to effectively stun an animal and render it unconscious immediately, as required under the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Two incidents on the same day in October involved hogs and the three other instances involved cattle. Second stuns were needed and, in some cases, the animal escaped the pen, documents said. The company also received a “noncompliance record,” but no suspension, on March 30 for the “ineffective” stunning of a “bovine animal,” the notice stated.

The company’s managing partner, Arion Thiboumery, said the suspensions were the company’s first.

“We take these issues very seriously and have substantially changed our processes,” he said in a telephone interview. Thiboumery said the hogs that were ineffectively stunned were too large to handle and the company has since limited the size of the hogs it will slaughter.

“This is extremely disappointing to us and the staff involved,” he said. “We hold our employees to a high standard.”

According to suspension notices listed on the USDA’s website that were sent to the Valley News by the Animal Welfare Institute, Washington, D.C.-based organization that’s mission is “alleviate suffering of nonhuman animals,” 99 slaughterhouses have received suspensions by the Field Safety Inspection Service since April 2016, with most of those later lifted after a corrective plan was submitted. Vermont Packinghouse was one of two that had four suspensions.

The other slaughterhouse was in Florida.

Dena Jones, director of the Farm Animal Program of the Animal Welfare Institute, said blaming the problems on inadequate equipment that could not restrain the animals is unacceptable.

“That is no excuse because (proper restraint) is part of the process and they know that,” Jones said in a telephone interview last week. “If it happens once it shouldn’t happen again and they shouldn’t be allowed to slaughter if they can’t restrain the animals.

“The fact is, there is a problem at the plant and the repeat suspensions show that. They should have an outside humane slaughter expert come in and try to determine the cause and how to fix it.”

In an April 27 letter to the Field Safety Inspection Service office in Philadelphia, the Animal Welfare Institute called for stiffer penalties against Vermont Packinghouse, recommending its “grant of inspection” be withdrawn.

That would effectively shut the company down because federal inspectors must be on-site when the plant is operating. In the last 10 years, Jones said, only three other federally inspected slaughterhouse had this many suspensions in less than a year.

“We believe that this plant’s enforcement history warrants a referral of the case to the (Field Safety Inspection Service’s) Enforcement and Litigation Division to remove the federal grant of inspection from the establishment,” she wrote in the letter.

Thiboumery said the company has made upgrades to its stunning and restraint equipment to significantly reduce the possibility of further “mis-stuns.” He said Vermont Packinghouse ordered new equipment to better restrain cattle last November, but because of manufacturing delays, it was not installed until last month.

“We knew last year we needed to move in this direction,” he said.

Thiboumery said the suspension in April was the result of a malfunctioning “captive bolt” stunning device, not improper restraint, though the inspection service’s letter blames it on the animal not being “restrained adequately.”

“These mis-stuns were not acceptable and go against our company values,” Thiboumery said in an email. “While each instance was different, the key issue was stopping cattle movement during stunning. We have improved our cattle stunning process with a state-of-the-art hydraulic restraint to make the chances of a mis-stun far less likely. This was a substantial investment for our small business, but humane handling and employee safety are the right things to invest in.”

As for the Animal Welfare Institute’s criticisms, Thiboumery doesn’t believe the group fully comprehends the pro2cess.

The institute “is not well-positioned to evaluate the situation, what occurred and the remedial action plan taken,” he said by phone last week.

The Animal Welfare Institute asks the USDA to further investigate a slaughterhouse or take further action only once or twice a year, Jones said. Sometimes the group gets a response; other times it does not.

In an emailed response to questions from the Valley News about the inspection process, Vermont Packinghouse’s suspensions, and whether stricter enforcement or fines are possible, the inspection service wrote, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service remains committed to enforcing the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The Agency will continue to monitor Vermont Packinghouse to ensure that they are operating within statutory and regulatory requirements.”

In a follow-up inquiry, the inspection service’s public affairs and consumer education office in Washington provided a website link to the USDA’s rules of practice but did not make a representative available for comment.

Beyond a suspension, the rules allow for the inspection service to take what is termed a “regulatory control action” to stop operations for several reasons, including inhumane handling or slaughter of animals. It could also withdraw federal inspection for the same reasons.

Jones said companies need only submit a plan for corrective action, but do not need to prove its implementation, for a suspension to be lifted.

Vermont has a statute dealing with inhumane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses that could result in fines or criminal prosecution. The law defines humane treatment in a way that makes the animal “insensible to pain” using a method that is “rapid and effective.”

Because Vermont Packinghouse is a federally inspected facility, the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is not initially involved in enforcement, an agency representative said.

“It is not our jurisdiction because it is a federally inspected plant,” said Alison Kosakowski, the agency’s communications director. “But when a slaughterhouse establishment is in violation, they are required to notify us and tell us the infractions.”

Randy Quenneville, meat programs section chief with Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, said the department monitors the corrective action to ensure the plant is following through on its action plan. If it turns out that Vermont Packinghouse has not followed through, Quenneville said, the state could proceed under Vermont law with administrative penalties or refer it to the Attorney General’s Office.

“We will let the (Food Safety and Inspection Service) system work and if we decide it is not working, we could move forward,” he said.

The inspection service’s decision to hold the suspensions “in abeyance,” meaning they were lifted, were issued after the company submitted a plan for corrective and preventive measures. These include continued employee training, the use of a roping halter on each animal, regular equipment maintenance and the installation of a head locking gate.

“We feel we are on the right track,” Thiboumery said.

He emphasized that being transparent in its operation is important, and for that reason, the company conducts tours for farmers, customers and the general public.

Vermont Packinghouse is one of several slaughterhouses in Vermont. Chelsea Lewis, who works in business development for the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the agency has worked over the last few years to address a concern among hog and cattle farmers about the lack of capacity.

“It has really gotten a lot better and farms can expand,” Lewis said.

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