MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Federal and state officials closed a Vermont slaughterhouse Friday after an animal rights group produced a video depicting days-old calves being dragged, kicked, and repeatedly shocked with electric prods.
The move against Bushway Packing House Inc. of Grand Isle came after the Humane Society of the United States provided authorities with an undercover video it produced showing the abuses.
That group's chief operating officer, Michael Markarian, called the treatment of the calves the "most egregious" treatment of animals it had documented since a similar undercover investigation at a meatpacking plant in California two years ago lead to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement Friday implicating both the Vermont slaughterhouse operators and an inspector from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. He said the agency's inspector general was launching a criminal investigation.
"When an FSIS employee observes behaviors that are not in compliance with (federal law), they are obligated to take immediate action," Vilsack said. "The behavior of FSIS and establishment personnel witnessed in this video is inexcusable."
Officials did not identify the FSIS inspector targeted in the probe and did not specify on Friday what accusations the inspector faces.
Slaughterhouse owner Ron Bushway said the federal and state action came as a surprise to him. When asked if he'd been shut down, he answered, "It's looking that way." He said he had no further comment.
Kelly Loftus, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said Bushway's main business was processing young male calves culled from dairy herds into meat to be made into hot dogs and lunch meats.
She said of the Bushway operation as depicted in the video, "These practices are not representative of the industry as a whole in Vermont."
A USDA description of the Human Society video, contained in a letter to Bushway Packing, was gruesome.
The Humane Society charged some of the animals handled by the plant were so young they still had their umbilical cords attached and could not walk. It said workers tried to force the animals to walk by slapping, kicking, dragging the animals and using electric prods.
In one instance in August, the USDA told Bushway, "your employee was observed to be dragging a non-ambulatory white calf by one leg in the pen area. He excessively and repeatedly applied an electrically charged hot shot (electric prod) to the neck and abdomen of the calf. Your employee pushed a knee into the calf and pushed the downed animal along the floor of the pen with the hot shot. He then placed the downed calf into a pen that contained ambulatory animals."
The letter added, "The dragging of conscious animals is an egregious inhumane handling act."