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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Veal Slaughter Plant Closed, Time to Finish the Job on Downer Calves

Catelli Bros., a veal and lamb slaughter plant in New Jersey, quietly announced this week that it will no longer slaughter animals. This is the same location where, two years ago, an HSUS investigation revealed abusive handling and inhumane slaughter practices, including still-conscious calves struggling while hanging upside down on a conveyor belt, calves being shot numerous times before reaching unconsciousness, a truck driver dragging a downed calf with a chain around the animal's neck, and plant managers twisting calves’ ears and pulling them by their tails. The investigation also documented employees shocking, hitting, and spraying calves with water. The exposé led to a weeks-long shutdown of the plant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Calf-Greg-Latza-HSUS-240x270
Photo courtesy of Greg Latza/For The HSUS

The latest news in this story is a reminder, though, of unfinished business at the USDA: The agency has yet to finalize a rule, seven years in the making, to ban the slaughter of downed veal calves.

Unfortunately, what happened at Catelli Bros. was not an isolated case, but rather another instance of abuse and mishandling in the calf slaughter industry. Back in 2009, a similar HSUS investigation at Bushway Packing, a Vermont veal facility, revealed that calves only a few days old—many with their umbilical cords still hanging from their bodies—were unable to stand or walk on their own. The infant animals were kicked, slapped and repeatedly shocked with electric prods and subjected to other mistreatment. The USDA shut the Vermont facility down and the case resulted in a cruelty conviction.

The USDA should be commended for its swift response in both New Jersey and Vermont when these abuses came to light. But there is something even more important at stake, and that is the need for a strong federal policy to protect young calves and prevent and discourage these abuses before they occur. That can be done by closing a loophole in the current downed animal regulations that invites cruelty by allowing these animals to be slaughtered for food if they can be made to stand.

Following the 2009 investigation in Vermont, The HSUS filed a legal petition asking the USDA to require that calves brought to slaughter unable to rise and walk be promptly and humanely euthanized and excluded from the food supply. More than 50,000 people wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack supporting the change. And last May, the USDA finally released a proposed rule to close this loophole.

Without a clearly-stated ban, current regulations create an incentive for workers to do everything they can—kicking, beating, prodding, and dragging—to force downed calves to slaughter. The proposed rule would reduce immense suffering and bring regulations for downed veal calves in-line with those already in place for downed adult cows.

In fact, one of President Obama’s first actions on animal welfare when he took office in early 2009 was to close a loophole that allowed the slaughter of mature downed cattle too sick or injured to walk on their own, in the wake of the Hallmark investigation that resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history and schools in dozens of states pulling ground beef off their lunch menus. Now, in his final year in office, President Obama can finish the job on this long-awaited rule and apply the same protections to young calves.

We’re grateful for the help from many members of Congress who encouraged USDA to implement this policy. In joint letters last year, 92 members of the House, led by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and 14 Senators, led by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., wrote to USDA in support of the proposal and urged the agency to finalize this rulemaking effort as soon as possible to protect animal welfare and food safety.

It’s just common sense that young, vulnerable calves should have the same protections under the law already given to adult cattle. The USDA has acknowledged that this regulatory loophole needs to be closed, and it shouldn’t wait for another investigation to uncover even more abuses. Now it’s time for the Obama administration to take a consistent approach to animal welfare and to make final the rule and plug this downer loophole.

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