Friday, March 5, 2010

Whistleblower Ignored by Food Safety Government Organization

A whistleblower is someone who reports internally or externally about possible transgressions or wrong-doings performed by their employer or fellow employees. Federal law offers minimal protection from retaliation to whistleblowers. Each state can enact whistleblower protections that are equal or more stringent than federal law.

But our system of following through and enforcing violations as presented by whistleblowers is a failed one.

Consider this: In 2009, an HSUS undercover investigator was employed at Bushway Packing in Vermont and videotaped what he saw. This is a bob-veal slaughterhouse. Bob veal is the flesh of male, dairy calves less than three weeks of age. If you do not want to click on HSUS's link, here's the story. The video revealed calves being skinned alive in front of USDA inspectors. Calves were being electrically prodded unnecessarily. They were being kicked. They were being slaughter improperly and not checked for insensitivity to pain before their throats were cut. These are all violations of federal law.

In light of the video, the plant was shut down.

Here's the thing: A Food Safety and Inspection Service (the "food and safety" agency of the USDA) veterinarian had complained about Bushway before. In a recent Washington Post article, Dean Wyatt suspended operations at Bushway Packing three times because of inhumane handling and treatment of the animals. FSIS reopened the plant each time.

Wyatt isn't a novice employee. He's been with FSIS for over 18 years and, prior to speaking up, was lauded for his accomplishments and hard work. 

When Wyatt blew the whistle, guess what happened? He was sent to remedial training sessions (as if suspending operations when animals are being skinned alive was a result of his inability to understand the rules), his supervisors wrote up a letter of reprimand and he was forced to transfer to a different plant.

That is called retaliation. It is illegal. It is why whistleblowers often find it difficult to speak up.

Wyatt is lucky organizations like the Government Accountability Project exist. That link will take you to the page on Wyatt and his experiences and testimony at the federal subcommittee House Oversight and Government Reform.

Wyatt's own words say it best:
"I am the exception," Wyatt told members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. "Food-integrity and humane-handling whistleblowers should not have to rely on an undercover video investigation in order for USDA supervisors to take their disclosures seriously."
You may not like undercover investigations. Or, perhaps, you just don't like the groups doing them. But when our entire system is set up to oppress internal whistleblowers and reward inspectors who ignore violations, then something needs to change. If undercover videos shed light on how animals are handled before their final breath, well, I happen to think they should be mandatory viewing for anyone who eats those animals. And if those videos show violations of the law, then the laws need to be enforced better (I mean, come on, this isn't a complex law) and actions need to be taken.

Because the truth is that Wyatt's experience is not an isolated incident - the Government Accountability Office recently published its findings (which were requested by the House Oversight subcommittee) here.

The results of the report are a sad reflection on the state of animal handling and slaughter. They show an inconsistency regarding enforcement. And, in many cases, they result in the unnecessary suffering of millions of animals annually. I encourage you to peruse the report. Some of the anecdotes attached to the survey responses are heart-wrenching.

Support whistleblower laws in your state. Choose your food sources wisely and compassionately. In this day and age, the reality is you need to do your homework before buying food. Don't expect animals to be treated humanely. Don't expect the pathetic laws already in place to even be enforced. Do your due diligence.

And, as always, consider a reduction in your reliance on animal products. We are a nation of over-consumers. We do not need to eat meat, dairy and eggs the way we do.

1 comment:

Kasey said...

I lived in Vermont until very recently, and when that whole thing happened, people were so *pissed,* especially a lot of the local farmers, because they were trying to raise their animals humanely and lovingly, and sent their animals to a slaughterhouse that was certified and supposedly gave a shit about humane and organic standards, and then ... yeah, this happened. I thought I was safe eating local animal products in Vermont because the culture there is all about local foods, respect for the land and the animals, etc., but even as a farmer, you can't control everything. A lot of farmers wish they could slaughter at the farm the way people used to be able to, and this I agree that if it had to happen, this would be the best way.