Sold Out by USDA?

Hopefully you’re not about to tuck into a plate of veal cutlet or sausage right now.  The latest whistleblower to be undermined by the very agency he worked for–the USDA–is veterinarian Dr. Dean Wyatt. For the past 18 years, Dr. Wyatt has had the enviable position of monitoring slaughtering operations for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).  Dr. Wyatt recently monitored operations at Seaboard Farms, a hog-slaughtering plant, and Bushway Packing, a veal calf-slaughtering plant.

Dr. Wyatt observed repeated handling violations at the plants, and, as it was his job to do so, reported these violations to his employer, USDA.  Instead, USDA allegedly sided with the plants and ultimately retaliated against Dr. Wyatt by giving him a rock/hard place ultimatum: transfer or be fired.

Dr. Wyatt’s information led to an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States at the Bushway plant, which uncovered widespread inhumane treatment. As a result, USDA closed down the Bushway plant for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and began a criminal investigation.

Taxpayers, animals, and consumers would have been much better served, however, if the USDA had actually listened to its own employee in the first place. As Dr. Wyatt testified before the House Oversight Committee’s Domestic Policy Subcommittee on March 5, 2010,

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. It seems almost unbelievable to me, but I have been ignored by my own people and have suffered physically, emotionally, and financially in the process. More importantly, animal welfare and food safety have suffered as well.

In a recent editorial, Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle makes the important observation that the FSIS has become part of the law enforcement problem because it has grown too close to the slaughter industry. Pacelle notes that the meat industry receives large federal subsidies, and it basically calls the shots at USDA. Dr. Wyatt’s painful experience reveals just how corrupted the situation has become.

The Government Accountability Office has released a report sharply criticizing USDA, and one would hope that changes are in the works. In the meantime, we are lucky to have whistleblowers like Dr. Wyatt who endure intense hardships in order to stop serious misconduct.