SLAUGHTERHOUSE

THE SHOCKING STORY OF GREED, NEGLECT, AND INHUMANE TREATMENT INSIDE THE U.S. MEAT INDUSTRY
By Gail A. Eisnitz

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 1997 Humane Farming Association
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-450-7


Chapter One

One Man's Cry for Help

Timothy Walker is a troublemaker.

In the 1980s, when employed as a Kansas City weights and measures inspector, he found that for the previous thirty years gas stations had been shortchanging their customers. Instead of keeping his mouth shut like everyone else, he blew the whistle. The case made headlines all over Missouri.

Later, as an energy auditor for the city, he tried to get officials to do something about the poverty he saw in the course of duty. The city, claiming budget constraints, refused to act. Walker ended up buying storm windows for low-income families out of his own pocket, paying one elderly woman's real-estate taxes, and bringing Thanksgiving dinner to another.

I first heard of Timothy Walker back in 1989 when, as a field investigator with a Washington, D.C.-based animal protection organization, I received a letter from him. He wrote that he had firsthand knowledge that Kaplan Industries, a slaughterhouse in Bartow, Florida, was skinning cattle while they were still alive.

Skinning live cattle? As a cruelty investigator, I would sometimes receive crank letters about cows butchered by aliens, or messages channeled from manatees, or telepathic chickens. But something about this letter seemed genuine.

"This is not only extremely cruel," he wrote, "but also very dangerous for the plant personnel who have to skin these kicking animals." Plant management knew about the problem, he said, but didn't want to correct it because that would mean slowing down the production line. "I have contacted a number of federal agencies but have been told there is nothing they can do. They also told me that the problems I described exist all over the country, that they are just a little worse at Kaplan's."

* * *

In my line of work, I've seen just about every imaginable kind of cruelty to animals, from the mundane to the exotic: dogs trained to rip each other apart for the amusement of people, the loser killed and the "winner" horribly maimed; ritual sacrifice of chickens, goats, sheep, and cattle; cockfighting, where birds wearing razor-sharp spurs fight to a slow, bloody death; puppy mills where inbred, genetically deformed puppies suffer from overcrowding, malnutrition, exposure to the elements, disease ...

But who in their right mind would attempt to skin conscious cows, particularly right under the noses of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspectors? Sometimes involuntary reflexes in stunned or dead animals can look like conscious kicking. And there was always the possibility that Walker might not be telling the truth. Perhaps he was just a disgruntled employee. I needed to dig deeper.

* * *

I learned that Kaplan was slaughtering about six hundred head of cattle a day. Not as many as some of the nation's newer high-speed mega-operations, but still high enough to make it the largest beef slaughterhouse in Florida. Next I called the USDA and requested an immediate investigation. Four days later a USDA official called me back with her findings. She said that no cattle were being skinned alive at Kaplan.

"Though I wouldn't have been surprised if they were, at that plant," she added.

"How come?" I asked.

"Oh, they have a reputation around here."

"Reputation for what?" I asked.

She wouldn't elaborate.

* * *

I decided it was time to contact Walker by phone. He was soft-spoken and articulate. When I asked for the source of his inside information, he admitted it was himself. He was, as it turned out, a USDA employee.

Unlike USDA meat inspectors who examined carcasses and body parts elsewhere in the plant, Walker worked in what's known as the "blood pit." Part of Walker's job was to take blood samples from cows to test for bovine brucellosis, a highly contagious disease which causes abortions in cattle and has a major financial impact on the beef industry. He was stationed on a catwalk between two head-skinners and a man who used a pneumatic dehorner and huge cleaver to cut off the animals' horns and front legs.

In theory, cattle in a slaughterhouse are either prodded along a chute into a "knocking box" or up to a conveyor/ restrainer, which then carries them up to the "stun operator." The stun operator, or "knocker," shoots each animal in the forehead with a compressed-air gun that drives a steel bolt into the cow's skull and then retracts it. If the knocking gun is sufficiently powered, well maintained, and properly used by the operator, it knocks the cow unconscious or kills the animal on the spot.

The next man on the line, the "shackler," wraps a chain around one of the stunned cow's hind legs. Once shackled, the animal is automatically lifted onto a moving overhead rail. The cow, now hanging upside down by a leg, is sent to the "sticker," the worker who cuts the throat-more precisely, the carotid arteries and a jugular vein in the neck. The sticker makes a vertical, not horizontal, incision in the animal's throat, near where the major vessels issue from the heart, to cut off the flow of blood to the animal's brain.

Next the cow travels along the "bleed rail" and is given several minutes to bleed out. The carcass then proceeds to the head-skinners, the leggers, and on down the line where it is completely skinned, eviscerated, and split in half.

That's exactly the way it's supposed to be done, according to federal law. But according to Walker, that's not at all what was happening at Kaplan Industries.

* * *

In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, an account of an immigrant family's struggle to survive amidst the appalling conditions of Chicago's stockyards and slaughterhouses. The Jungle revealed slaughterhouse conditions so shocking and meat so filthy that meat sales plummeted more than fifty percent and President Theodore Roosevelt personally crusaded for enactment of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. That law and subsequent legislation established standards for plant sanitation and required federal inspection of all meat shipped interstate or out of the country.

Today, USDA employees inspect meat in much the same way as they did back in 1906. According to federal law, all animals in slaughterhouses must be examined before and after they are killed. These inspections are conducted by government veterinarians or trained inspectors. Veterinarians, knowledgeable in animal physiology and health, have general oversight in slaughterhouses. Inspectors, who receive classroom and on-the-job training, learn how to detect lesions, signs of illness, and contamination in animals.

During antemortem (before death) exams, inspectors observe animals in pens prior to slaughter and segregate unhealthy or "suspect" animals for examination by USDA veterinarians. They look for anything that deviates from the norm: animals that can't walk; those with abnormal gaits, tremors, paralysis; those that grind their teeth; and the like. They also look for signs of infection, recent surgeries, etc.

Most inspectors, however, work inside the plant where they conduct postmortem (after death) exams. Stationed in a few key places along the "disassembly" line, they are supposed to inspect each animal's head, carcass, and internal organs for signs of disease, abscesses, and lesions, as well as contaminants like fecal material, hair, and dirt. When an abnormal carcass or organ is detected by a postmortem inspector, it is tagged and retained for examination by the USDA veterinarian. Inspectors are also required to enforce plant sanitation and meat-labeling standards.

Congress passed the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA) in 1958 and broadened it in 1978. Among the HSA's most important provisions is the requirement that all animals be rendered unconscious with just one application of an effective stunning device by a trained person before being shackled and hoisted up on the line.

The USDA, closely allied to the meat industry and opposed to the Humane Slaughter Act, was nevertheless made responsible for its enforcement. And while the intentional violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act carries stiff fines and imprisonment, violations of the Humane Slaughter Act carry no penalties at all. When inspectors observe violations of the HSA, however, they are required to stop the slaughter process until violations are corrected. Since "down time" can result in fewer profits for the day, the threat of USDA line stoppages is supposed to assure industry compliance with the law.

* * *

For months before contacting me, Walker had pleaded with his USDA supervisors to correct the problems at the plant. "I can safely say someone is going to be killed if conditions at Kaplan's are not changed," Walker had written in a letter to a supervisor. To another he wrote, "You cannot begin to know what the conditions are at this plant unless you have worked on the kill floor and seen them for yourself. I have almost had my clock stopped [been killed] a number of times by live cows kicking wildly as they were skinned while still conscious." To a third supervisor he wrote, "The situation calls for immediate action. I dislike bypassing the chain of command, but I have now become more upset about the persistent conditions at this place and the inability of the federal government to correct them."

Nothing happened.

In his first effort to seek help outside the USDA, this former navy sailor wrote to the Veterans Administration (VA). "What I saw when I walked into the plant looked like illustrations for Dante's Inferno. Hell can't be any worse than what exists at this place."

Nothing happened.

After striking out with two federal agencies, Walker wrote to me.

Chapter Two

Will We Get Out Of Here Alive?

Timothy Walker lived in Naples, Florida, a sunny town sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Big Cypress Swamp. I met him in a small seafood restaurant. He looked to be in his late forties, of average height and build, with glasses and a beard, and a pleasant, self-effacing air. To get acquainted, we swapped a little personal information before I turned on the tape recorder.

Having dreamed of living in Florida, Walker had left his job as an energy auditor a year earlier and moved south. He thought he'd lined up a job with the USDA's animal welfare division, the unit that inspects conditions in research labs, commercial dog-breeding establishments, and zoos. He never expected to find himself inside a beef slaughterhouse collecting blood samples.

"Last Saturday," he said, "the line was smoking. There were more live cows coming through than I've ever seen before. The skinners were cussing. We were cussing. The whole line was going crazy. Just about every cow that come down the line-at least a hundred of them-was alive that afternoon."

According to Walker, while Kaplan slaughtered only fifty to seventy cows an hour, the facility was dilapidated and the equipment too poorly maintained to handle even that many. As a result, when the line speed was increased-particularly when the foreman was trying to push through as many cattle as possible at the end of the work day-plant employees just couldn't keep up.

"The knocker doesn't always hit 'em square," Walker said. "Sometimes the cow will get up and run through the plant. One time I saw a cow come barreling down and knock this Mexican fellow to the floor. Ran right over him. I asked the guy if he was hurt. It was pretty plain his back was killing him but he said, `No, no.' He knew Kaplan's would fire him if he complained."

A birthday celebration at a nearby table interrupted our conversation. After the candles were blown out and the clapping died down, Walker recounted two other incidents in which USDA employees themselves had nearly been trampled to death by supposedly stunned bulls.

More often, he said, improperly stunned cattle regained consciousness after they'd been shackled and hoisted onto the overhead rail. In addition to kicking and thrashing as they hung upside down, he told me, "they'd be blinking and stretching their necks from side to side, looking around, really frantic."

Regardless, the cattle moved down the line to the sticker.

"A lot of times the sticker just can't do his job right," Walker said. "He doesn't get a good bleed." Still, within seconds of being stuck, the cows arrived at the two head-skinners, who stripped all the hide from the animals' heads.

"A lot of times the skinner finds out an animal is still conscious when he slices the side of its head and it starts kicking wildly. If that happens, or if a cow is already kicking when it arrives at their station, the skinners shove a knife into the back of its head to cut the spinal cord."

This practice paralyzes the cow from the neck down but doesn't deaden the pain of head skinning or render the animal unconscious; it simply allows workers to skin or dismember the animal without getting kicked.

The restaurant was filling up for dinner. Walker had finished the sandwich he'd ordered and I'd eaten my salad. We'd been talking for about an hour and needed a break. We took a short walk along the waterfront, then drove back to my motel where I started the tape rolling again.

"Skinning live animals isn't only cruel," Walker said, "but it's also really dangerous for the skinners and the rest of us." Crammed together on a rusty old catwalk, workers had no place to take cover when live cattle were struggling and kicking on the rail. Sometimes animals would break free of their shackles and come crashing down headfirst to the floor fifteen feet below, where other men worked.

"It's a miracle that nobody's been killed. There were three in one day, one right after another. One hit a worker, just a glancing blow, broke his leg. I almost got crushed by a falling bull."

"So when you decided to do something about it, where did you start?" I asked.

"I asked my boss if I had the authority to stop the line. He said it was Dr. Tecsan's problem [the USDA veterinarian at Kaplan]. `She's in charge.' In order to tell Tecsan I'd have to leave my station, and if I do that, I'm not taking blood samples. So I'd tell her after I got off the line that they were skinning live cows. Sometimes she'd say something, sometimes she was too busy." Walker named about twenty different people he'd contacted at the USDA, the VA, and the U.S. Congress. "I even contacted Senator Bob Graham [D-Fla.]. At the time, I didn't know he owned a big dairy.

"There's other things, too," he continued. "Safety violations. A lot of times the sewers will stop up, with legs, ears, things like that. The blood coagulates, it backs up. It'll be up to six inches deep, you can't see the drains and you can trip. And sometimes broken shackles-they weigh maybe thirty pounds-fall from the rail and hit workers down below." By the time we finished talking that evening, we had tallied up fourteen different federal humane and safety regulations that were routinely violated at Kaplan.

* * *

It was tough sleeping that night. First of all, I had a knot in my chest and a sore throat that was keeping me up. Second, as a cruelty investigator I thought I'd developed a pretty thick skin, but this situation at Kaplan was getting to me.

* * *

The next morning I drove north to Frostproof to speak with Kenneth Sandborne, one of Walker's co-workers. Sandborne, like Walker a USDA brucellosis tester, told me that all the problems on Walker's list had been around long before he'd come to work at the plant. When I pressed him for details and for observations of his own, he told me a story.

Before Walker had even hired on with the USDA, Sandborne and another brucellosis tester had stopped the slaughter operation at Kaplan when conscious cattle were being skinned alive. The plant vice president rushed out to the floor.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from SLAUGHTERHOUSEby Gail A. Eisnitz Copyright © 1997 by Humane Farming Association. Excerpted by permission.
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