FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- The knives at the slaughterhouse weren't properly sanitized, a government investigator said, and employees at the meatpacking plant didn't know how to test the carcasses of days-old veal calves for a dangerous pathogen. Food safety conditions were so poor at the Vermont processing facility that it should close before someone got sick, officials warned.
Instead, the plant stayed open for months. It wasn't until an undercover video surfaced with images of calves being kicked, dragged and skinned alive that the federal government ordered Bushway Packing Inc. to close last November for the inhumane treatment of animals.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at that time called the abuse "inexcusable," and vowed to redouble efforts to enforce laws aimed at protecting farm animals.
A report by the Government Accountability Office released last week, however, found that while stringent animal protections may be on the books, the federal government is doing a lax job of enforcing them.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who has held hearings on the issue, said animal treatment is key to food safety.
"How can the public have confidence in the safety of the food they eat if inspections at plants aren't consistent or in some cases, if they're not happening at all," Kucinich said. "There is a direct connection between humane animal handling and food safety."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking further comment, but said in a written response to the GAO that it planned to use auditors' findings and recommendations to improve efforts to enforce humane slaughtering laws.
In May 2008, the Agriculture Department banned the slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand, because so-called "downer" cows pose an increased risk for mad cow disease, E. coli and other infections.
That change came in the wake of the nation's largest beef recall, after the Humane Society of the United States released another video in early 2008 showing the abuse of downers at the Chino, Calif.-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.
Nearly two years later, the report released by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service still has no standardized method for determining how many times a sick animal can be stunned before it constitutes "egregious" abuse.
Enforcement of humane slaughtering laws was so inconsistent that the two busiest meatpacking districts, in Des Moines and Chicago, did not suspend a single plant from 2005 through 2007, a period when 10 other districts together suspended 35, according to the GAO.
Meatpacking industry officials said leaving so much up to the discretion of individual inspectors and veterinarians also puts companies in a tight spot, because they can't anticipate how strictly the rules will be enforced.
"You want consistent enforcement in your everyday life and we're no different," said James Hodges, executive vice president of American Meat Institute, the nation's oldest and largest meat and poultry trade association. "We were the first organization to develop animal handling guidelines in the plants, but that doesn't mean everyone in the system pays attention."
The meatpacking industry has long opposed animal welfare advocates' efforts to draw a link between the treatment of farm animals and public health. The industry contends consumers shouldn't be worried about eating contaminated meat.
Kucinich, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that is monitoring USDA's oversight efforts, quizzed Obama administration officials at a hearing last week about how they planned to improve the agency's enforcement standards.
"We are deeply committed to the humane handling of livestock," Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Jerold Mande testified. "If (companies) don't have control of their humane handling processes it raises the question of how they can have control of their food safety processes."
Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who witnessed the mishandling of calves at Bushway Packing in Grand Isle, Vt., said the two processes were intertwined, and that his supervisors should have listened to his warnings before the video recorded by the Humane Society of the United States surfaced.
Three times last year, he called for the plant to suspend operations for abuse of male veal calves, including an incident in which a weak and injured calf was dragged across a holding pen. But after each suspension his supervisors allowed the plant to reopen, he said.
An enforcement investigator from the Albany district office also found 23 violations of food safety laws there, including improper E. coli testing procedures and faulty sanitizing processes for slaughter knives, according to e-mails provided by Wyatt. But FSIS supervisors in Albany later ordered those noncompliance records to be rescinded even though officials "could not determine if the food produced and shipped by the establishment is safe," the e-mails show. The USDA did not immediately comment on the incident.
Peter Langrock, a Middlebury, Vt. lawyer who represents Bushway, said company officials had worked to correct problems and hope to reopen the facility and enter into a consent decree with the USDA to settle a criminal investigation in the next few weeks.
"These are really good country farmers who never intended in any way to inhumanely handle an animal," Langrock said. "This was a case of somebody looking only to find problems."
Associated Press writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.