Although humane slaughter might sound like an oxymoron — like, say, “clean coal” — it’s a goal that some members of the meat industry take seriously.
Arion Thiboumery of the Vermont Packinghouse in North Springfield, Vermont, is one of them. The plant opened its doors three years ago and has been celebrated for its transparency — Thiboumery regularly welcomes tours of the operation — and its central mission to slaughter animals with “respect and dignity.”
“We feel like we’re proud of what we do here and we want everything to be above board,” he told HuffPost last summer. “We’ll tell you about how the animal was raised and we’ll talk about how it died. We’re not embarrassed about it.”
But Vermont Packinghouse started having some trouble a few weeks after that interview.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a suspension to the facility on Oct. 12, 2016, after an inspector observed the plant supervisor attempting to stun a pig in a way that violated federal humane slaughter law. Facilities like Thiboumery’s must kill livestock with “a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective,” according to the law.
According to USDA documents, the pig escaped from its cattle stun box after the supervisor shot its cheek with a .410 shotgun, breaking the animal’s cheek bones into fragments but not rendering it immediately unconscious. That same day, another pig was ineffectively stunned inside the same cattle stun box, although that animal was unconscious following a second attempt.
The USDA inspector deemed these actions to be egregious violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which was signed into law in 1958 to prevent both the needless suffering of animals and to improve working conditions for slaughterhouse workers.
The Vermont Packinghouse was up and running again the next day, but three more suspensions followed as inspectors observed similarly notable violations of humane slaughter in January, March and April of this year.
This caught the eye of the Animal Welfare Institute. The advocacy group issued a letter last month to the USDA urging the agency to withdraw the Vermont Packinghouse’s grant of inspection, which is required for the plant to remain in operation.
“It’s very distressing to us to read about these incidents,” Dena Jones, AWI farm animal program director, told HuffPost. “In each case, the animal suffered.”
Jones suggested that the facility should have hired a humane slaughter consultant long before its later violations. It is very rare, she pointed out, for facilities of this size to receive so many violations in such a short time period.
“This sort of history suggests a management problem at the plant,” Jones said. “And these suspensions probably represent just the tip of the iceberg.”
It’s not just animal welfare groups raising an eyebrow at the Vermont facility’s struggles, either.
Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University animal science professor and humane slaughter pioneer depicted in an award-winning HBO biopic, said she hasn’t visited the plant. But, she told HuffPost, the USDA violations indicate it has a lot of work to do.
“They were sloppy,” Grandin said. “They need to get trained and do things right. This was a lack of knowledge, that’s what it was.”
For his part, Thiboumery is not taking the suspensions lightly. He described them as “a disappointment both for me and my staff,” and said the facility is working to address its issues.
“We take this very seriously, and we are very committed to transparency,” he told HuffPost.
“They were sloppy. They need to get trained and do things right.”
Thiboumery said his plant purchased a large hydraulic restraint, which holds cattle steady and lessens the risk of stunning failures, for some $50,000 following the first suspension.
But because the equipment takes six months to build, he said, it wasn’t in place when the later suspensions occurred. (A spokeswoman for the Vermont Agriculture Department, the state regulatory body, confirmed that the new equipment has since been installed and is currently in use at the plant.)
The incidents have presented a significant financial burden for the small plant, including “thousands of dollars of downtime.” But Thiboumery said he remains committed to his mission.
“Obviously, we are killing these animals, but we want every single one of them to have as good and graceful and swift a death as possible,” he said. “We acknowledge that goal and think that’s the right goal to have. We’re going to continue to try to do everything we can to aim for perfection.”
“Obviously, we are killing these animals, but we want every single one of them to have as good and graceful and swift a death as possible.”
Humane slaughter laws have been enforced more strictly in recent years. This is likely because an animal welfare group released a graphic undercover video in 2008 that showed cattle being mistreated at the Westland/Hallmark meat plant in Chino, California. Suspensions related to these laws surged from fewer than 30 in 2007 to more than 90 in 2008, according to an analysis by the AWI. Some 120 suspensions were logged last year.
Although Jones of the AWI acknowledges that enforcement has improved, she said she believes it’s still lacking when it comes to plants with repeated suspensions.
“This plant has been given ample warning and opportunity to correct the deficiencies,” Jones added. “Since they’ve not been able to do so, we believe in order to save animals from further suffering, they should lose the right to slaughter animals.”
The FSIS has no formal system ― say, a three-strikes law ― for increasingly severe penalties in the event of a meat plant’s repeated suspensions, but the agency can opt to permanently withdraw a facility’s grant of inspection. Such a decision, an FSIS spokeswoman said, would largely be based on the facility’s history of compliance.
Janet Riley, senior vice president at the North American Meat Institute, a trade group, suggested that the current enforcement level of the humane slaughter law at meat plants already lays out cumbersome expectations.
Stunning issues like what happened at the Vermont plant, Riley pointed out, are the cause of the vast majority of USDA humane slaughter suspensions and can be attributed to issues that are sometimes beyond operators’ control. The temperament of the animals themselves, which can be affected by a range of factors including how accustomed the animals are to being around people and what the weather is like, can also play a role.
“The USDA has a requirement to stun every animal perfectly every time,” Riley said. “It’s a wonderful goal, but experts will tell you that it’s probably not going to be achievable all the time.”
Riley added that the Vermont Packinghouse’s commitment to ethics and transparency sets a positive example for others in the industry.
“I can hardly think of another company that is allowing so many tour groups,” Riley said. “I think what they’re doing is really admirable.”
Whether the plant will be able to overcome its problems remains an open question. The facility will continue to be monitored for compliance with all relevant regulations, an FSIS spokeswoman said in a statement.
Despite the difficulties his plant has had, Thiboumery appears to be largely undeterred — and his doors remain open for visitors.
“The people who’ve been here know what really goes on here,” he said. “If anybody has some questions, we’ve always been an open facility.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.