March 13, 2008

Following a recent suggestion in Congress that the government should install video cameras in US slaughterhouses to ensure the humane and safe treatment of animals killed for human consumption, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and the Humane Farming Association (HFA) have called on legislators to reject any attempt by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use cameras in lieu of inspectors.

Recent undercover video footage obtained by an investigator from an animal protection organization revealed abhorrent acts of cruelty to livestock at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, California. The footage showed downer cows being tortured prior to slaughter, raising both ethical and food safety issues.

For more than a decade, animal advocates have presented detailed reports and graphic video documentation from a number of slaughter facilities across the country to demonstrate this widespread problem. In the wake of the Hallmark case, which led to the biggest beef recall in US history, the USDA is now considering the installation of video cameras as a deterrent.

"Documentation has been obtained on videotape at slaughter plants because animal advocates were there in person recording what they saw. These people were able to move about the plants and rotate the cameras to catch the plant workers engaged in illegal activities," said AWI President Cathy Liss.

"Animals must be watched from the time the truck arrives and animals are unloaded, through the stunning and slaughter process, until the last animal on the vehicle is killed. Under USDA's proposal, where will the cameras be positioned and who is going to watch all the footage?"

"Government-installed video cameras aren't the answer," said Gary Dahl, Colorado representative for the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. "The law was specifically crafted to allow an inspector who is present and observes violations of the Humane Slaughter Act to stop the slaughter line on the spot. How on earth can this happen with a video camera?"

From 2001 forward, Congress has provided millions of additional funds to the USDA for humane slaughter enforcement. Additional monies were intended for the USDA to hire new in-plant employees to work full-time on Humane Slaughter Act enforcement only, but to date, none have been hired. When the Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2004 citing widespread animal welfare issues under the USDA's watch, the report was ignored by the agency.

"Using cameras to give meat packers a 'Good Slaughter Housekeeping Seal of Approval' is just another publicity stunt by the USDA," said Gail Eisnitz, an HFA senior investigator whose acclaimed 1997 book Slaughterhouse exposed a myriad of problems behind the closed doors of the US slaughter industry.

AWI and HFA are concerned with the lack of conviction to enforcement shown by the USDA; the agency must hire inspectors to work in plants full-time with the sole responsibility of enforcing the regulations for humane handling, stunning and slaughter of animals as mandated by the Humane Slaughter Act.