Group unveils undercover video

Published 10:07 am Thursday, November 12, 2015

By Jason Schoonover and Steve Karnowski of the Associated Press

Actions depicted questions practices at QPP in Austin

AUSTIN — The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it saw “completely unacceptable” actions depicted on an animal welfare group’s undercover video from Quality Pork Processors.

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Compassion Over Killing released clips of the video online shot last month by a former worker at QPP’s Austin plant, which solely services Hormel Foods Corp. The video shows workers taking “inhumane shortcuts that lead to extreme suffering” to keep the slaughter lines moving, according to Erica Meier, executive director of the Washington-based animal rights groups. “If USDA is around they could shut us down,” one worker can be heard saying on the video.

The USDA said it will investigate further if it confirms the video’s authenticity.

“The actions depicted in the video under review are completely unacceptable,” said Adam Tarr, a spokesman for the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service.

QPP said it has already disciplined two employees shown on the video and will take further actions if necessary. Nate Jansen, vice president of human resources and quality services at QPP, said the company was disappointed to see employees who did not appear to follow its policies requiring the humane treatment of animals.

Despite the claims, Jansen assured QPP produces safe food.

“We operate under some of the highest standards and operating procedures that are out there to ensure the food that we produce is safe,” Jansen said. “We work closely with the USDA in ensuring that we comply with and exceed the safety and quality standards.”

QPP’s Austin plant is one of a few across the country that’s testing a relatively new inspection system that involves fewer USDA inspectors and quicker processing lines, which is called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which has proven a controversial model.

Meier blamed the system for the alleged abuses, which she said included pigs being beaten, shocked, dragged and improperly stunned out of inspectors’ views, as well as animals with abscesses and covered in feces.

“By allowing facilities like Quality Pork Processors to operate at these increased slaughter speeds, combined with the reduced federal oversight, the USDA is essentially giving the industry a free pass to police itself,” Meier said on a conference call.

“These excessive line speeds force workers to taker inhumane shortcuts,” she added.

Meier argued the faster speeds allow QPP to slaughter 1,300 hogs per hour, compared to 1,100 at a typical facility, and she said the faster speeds produce more risk.

“We’re urging the federal agency to take immediate corrective actions,” Meier said.

The USDA disputed the pro-vegetarian group’s claim that the faster inspection system was to blame. Tarr said that system is being used only farther down the production line, where carcasses are sorted.

The North American Meat Institute’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Animal Welfare Committee Liaison Janet Riley released a statement arguing edited clips with narration can be challenging to observe, but the institute found proper stunning, which it called called critical to the stun process, to be “working well.”

“We saw no breathing, natural blinking or a righting reflex that would suggest anything other than an insensible animal,” she wrote.

However, Riley and the institute did acknowledge the video depict “unacceptable rough handling” through using a paddle to drive animals.

Jansen noted that the video was edited down from hours of footage.

“What you’re looking at is an edited clip and if you were to look at the full-length sequence of events that it would show that these animals were handled properly,” Jansen said.

He also said the company’s own video monitoring — which he says is run and audited by a third party — caught the two employees even before officials learned of the undercover investigation, and that the employees were given written warnings and ordered to undergo retraining. He said the company is working with the USDA, will modify its training programs as necessary and has safeguards in place to keep contaminated products out of the food supply.

Austin-based Hormel issued a statement saying it has a “zero tolerance policy for the inhumane treatment of animals” and holds its suppliers to the same high standards. Hormel said it has reviewed the video and will work with QPP and the USDA to take “any necessary corrective action.”

Meier said her group provided the full video to the USDA on Oct. 27 and shared it with the Austin Police Department, which forwarded the information to the Mower County Attorney’s Office. The office was closed for Veterans Day, and a message was not immediately returned.