Coalition Protests Flawed Poultry Inspection Plan at White House

HIMP_protest_092613Yesterday, FIC joined protesters from a coalition of food and worker safety groups outside the White House to oppose USDA’s plan to implement a dangerous new model for inspecting poultry.

The plan, which would give inspectors only 1/3 of a second to check each bird due to increased line speeds, has been criticized by many USDA inspectors, including some that have already witnessed the effects of the proposed changes at several pilot plants. Among anonymous whistleblowers' concerns are the following:

  • At pilot plants, federal inspectors are replaced with company plant workers who are powerless to speak out against their employers. The inspectors have witnessed that these sorters are "rebuked by supervisors" when they try to slow down processing lines for food safety concerns.
  • USDA inspectors are discouraged from holding pilot plants accountable, with reports of a supervisor telling inspectors to “give them a break” in order to prevent plants with high numbers of violations from being removed from the pilot program.
  • Under traditional inspection methods, inspectors can see all sides (and the inside) of the bird. But inspectors at pilot plants can only see the backside of the bird – not the front (where the breast meat is), which may clearly show tumors or scabs. Nor can inspectors see the inside of the bird, where fecal matter and other disease-causing abnormalities are found.
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USDA Whistleblowers: Workers "Threatened" for Making Food Safety Complaints at Pork Plants

usdaLast week it was poultry; this week it's pork. The front page of today's Washington Post has published yet another incriminating piece on the USDA's pilot inspection program. We've already heard serious whistleblower concerns about the program at numerous poultry plants, but now insiders involved at pork processing facilities have come forward with their concerns.

Mirroring several of the concerns many USDA whistleblowers brought to FIC regarding the poultry program (including pressure to keep quiet when they see food safety problems), six anonymous USDA inspectors have raised concerns from hog pilot plants.

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Worker Safety Concerns Ignored in Poultry Industry Awards

poultry_lineThere seems to be some contradictory messaging between poultry industry owners and workers when it comes to employee health and safety. On one hand, top producers are getting patted on the back for "outstanding safety performance." On the other, workers and inspectors report impossibly fast line speeds and unsafe conditions they fear will worsen under a new poultry processing plan.

Last week, the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council recognized 92 U.S. poultry facilities for worker safety performance, including Butterball, Cargill, Perdue and Wayne Farms. The top honor, the Award of Distinction, was given to several of their poultry processing facilities, including a Cargill plant in Texas that is participating in a controversial pilot program that may, in fact, enhance worker safety concerns. The program

  1. increases already unmanageable line speeds,
  2. removes government inspectors, and
  3. transfers those government duties to plant workers, who lack adequate whistleblower protections and feel obligated to keep quiet when they experience problems

These are just some of the numerous issues whistleblowers have raised about the program's changes. Two other plants participating in the problematic inspection program, a Butterball processing plant in North Carolina and a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Texas, each received an Award of Honor for their worker safety.

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North Carolina Takes a Hint and Ag Gag Takes a Hit

northcarolinaThe use of undercover video, audio, and photographs to promote transparency in our food system has proved essential in holding bad actors accountable. Exposés have been so successful that in 2011 the practice came under widespread attack in the form of numerous states' proposed anti-whistleblower legislation, referred to as "Ag Gag" bills, which criminalize the act of videotaping acts of cruelty and wrongdoing in animal and other agricultural facilities.

Essentially, these bills make it a crime to report a crime.

Since 2011, Ag Gag bills have continued to show up across the nation. In 2013, they cropped up in 11 states with the last bill failing in late July: North Carolina's legislature adjourned without approving the problematic measure which would stop workers from effectively blowing the whistle on cruel agriculture (as well as other industries). Thankfully, North Carolina realized in time that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and employees have the right to tell without threat of criminal prosecution.

North Carolina, like the other states, was drafting its legislation under the influence of Big Ag lobbyists. Yes, undercover video of abuse and misconduct has an impact on company bottom lines. I get that. But the answer is not having private interests lobby state legislators to help you commit crimes without consequence. Fortunately, corporate agriculture lobbyists did not go unopposed. The Food Integrity Campaign was joined by 70 other organizations which together represent millions of people and stand for causes such as ending needless suffering, ensuring safe food and water, stopping the exploitation of workers and preserving the validity of the United States Constitution.

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Wife of USDA Whistleblower Gathers 150,000+ Signatures to Stop Agency Retaliation

Tammy Schrier, wife of Government Accountability Project (GAP) client and veteran USDA inspector Jim Schrier, has collected more than 150,000 petition signatures through a petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stop retaliating against her husband.

Jim Schrier, a USDA meat inspector for 29 years, was recently stationed at a Tyson Foods slaughter facility in Iowa where he witnessed obvious humane handling violations involving market hogs. When he raised these concerns to his supervisor, the supervisor sent Jim to work at another facility 120 miles away.

GAP Food Integrity Campaign Director Amanda Hitt commented:

GAP has worked with many meat industry whistleblowers like Jim who are brave enough to speak up when they see wrongdoing but face unlawful retaliation for doing so. It's easy to see why more than 150,000 people would want these truth-tellers on the front lines of our food supply to be rewarded rather than silenced.

Iowa has built a fortress around the unsavory truths that underlie Big Ag. What Jim Schrier witnessed calls into question the integrity of this industry. Tyson's treatment of these animals belies consumer expectations about humane handling and the safety of meat. Jim risked his career and family when he chose to speak out against the meat industry. Not only have Jim and fellow inspectors been discouraged from following the law and safeguarding against inhumane handling, but on top of this, the recent passage of Iowa's Ag Gag law actually makes it a crime to blow the whistle on farm animal abuse.

Tammy's petition urges the agency to bring Jim back to his original post near their home. Jim commented:

It means so much that my wife started this petition on my behalf. We are amazed at the responses we've received and appreciate all the people who have shown such support.

Tammy's campaign has gathered more than 150,000 signatures in less than a month, with more expected. Signers of the petition include other USDA inspectors who support Jim's claims and feared similar acts of retaliation by the agency.

At the Tyson plant, Jim witnessed that pigs being shackled for slaughter were kicking and thrashing violently. This is a direct and gross violation of the USDA's humane handling regulations that require pigs to be completely unconscious and unable to feel pain prior to shackling. He also witnessed that many pigs required stunning after being shackled, indicating that the animals had not been stunned properly beforehand.


Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

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Coalition Welcomes Defeat of All 11 Anti-Whistleblower Ag Gag Bills in 2013

FIC and many of our diverse coalition partners contributed to a statement released today by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) regarding anti-whistleblower Ag Gag legislation.

The statement reads in part:

… a broad spectrum of public interest groups today welcomed the defeat of all 11 ag-gag/anti-whistleblower bills that were introduced during 2013 legislative sessions across the country. North Carolina’s session ended on Friday without a vote on Senate Bill (SB) 648, which would have suppressed whistleblower investigations at farms and other facilities. In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag/anti-whistleblower legislation was introduced this year in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming, but no bills became law.

Ag-gag bills usually contain one or more of three provisions designed to suppress whistleblowing: the ban of photography/video on premises; the criminalization of securing a job under “false pretenses” (whistleblowers sometimes gain employment at facilities in order to obtain evidence of cruelty); and mandatory reporting of documented abuse within a short and arbitrary timeframe. Mandatory reporting provisions became more common in the most recent legislative sessions, and while on their face appear to support prosecution of abuse, actually hinder meaningful and effective investigations by mandating reporting before adequate documentation can occur. North Carolina’s bill included all three types of provisions.

Because ag-gag/whistleblower suppression bills aim to criminalize investigations on agricultural facilities that can expose animal welfare, worker, environmental, food safety and other violations and abuse through unconstitutional provisions, a wide array of interest groups have strongly opposed them, including civil liberties, environmental, prosecution, First Amendment, labor and even some farming organizations—70 of which have signed a strong opposition statement.

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Ag Gag Motivation for Journalist Arrest in Kansas?

cameraThe oldest example of an anti-whistleblower Ag Gag law, enacted in Kansas in 1990, may not have been the stated reason for the arrest of veteran photographer George Steinmetz, but the sentiment behind the controversial, transparency-stifling legislation may still have served as motivation.

Steinmetz, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was paragliding over a cattle feedlot to take pictures for a series on food for National Geographic Magazine. After he landed, he was arrested "for entering private property uninvited before their launch."

A feedlot employee had reported to the county sheriff that he'd seen the photographer (and his flying instructor) flying over the feedlot taking pictures and that there was an SUV on the ranch property. After Steinmetz and his instructor moved to another location, the feedlot executives still insisted the two men be arrested for trespassing. They were held in jail and were released after each paid a $270 bond.

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