Jeffrey Ettinger, the current CEO and chairman of the board of Hormel Foods was on campus last week to speak to law students for a Distinguished Alumni Lecture. As a UCLA School of Law alumna myself, I felt compelled to write about Hormel’s practices, specifically those related to a pig slaughter program that reduces inspections and increases rates of slaughter, which was exposed via a graphic undercover video released last fall.
If UCLA is going to invite Ettinger to speak to students, it’s important for the UCLA community to be aware of this issue and to think critically about the real-world impacts of Hormel’s actions
Full disclosure: I am general counsel for the nonprofit animal protection organization that released a hidden-camera video, taken inside Quality Pork Processors, a Minnesota-based slaughterhouse that supplies exclusively to Hormel. The footage is shocking: As pigs head to the kill floor on their last day of life, they are beaten, shocked and even stunned improperly, meaning workers fail to ensure they are unconscious when put into scalding tanks before slaughter. Others are unable to walk and are dragged to their deaths. Their meat will eventually be marketed as Spam or other pork products.
All of this is done while the U.S. Department of Agriculture is, by design, not looking. Quality Pork Processors is one of five facilities in the U.S. operating under a USDA pilot program, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project, that reduces the number of government inspectors on site while also allowing for slaughter lines to run at faster speeds than non-HIMP facilities.
Of the five pork HIMP facilities in the U.S., three are affiliated with Hormel. HIMP has been around for more than 15 years, and it’s been widely criticized – even by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General – for increasing food safety risks as well as increasing the dangers posed to animals and workers. Yet HIMP remains an active “pilot” program that has never been fully evaluated by the USDA.
At Quality Pork Processors, one slaughterhouse worker told our investigator, “If the USDA is around, they could shut us down.”
The USDA reviewed our investigation footage and stated, “The actions depicted in the video occurred at times when USDA inspection personnel were not performing verifications. Had these actions been observed by Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors, they would have resulted in immediate regulatory action against the plant.” In other words, since the USDA inspectors did not directly witness what we documented on video, they won’t take any enforcement action against it. Out of sight, out of mind.
And that’s exactly the point of HIMP: The USDA is not really around, and is not really watching. This facility takes full advantage. We even documented a supervisor literally sleeping on the job when he should have been overseeing the stunning station to ensure animals were not awake when they went through the scalding and slaughter process.
The story of our investigation was first featured in the Washington Post and quickly went viral, making headlines in news outlets across the country and around the world. USDA whistleblowers working inside HIMP facilities have raised even more red flags, stating that the high speed at which pigs are slaughtered makes it nearly impossible to detect fecal waste, abscesses, tumors or other food safety concerns.
In January, 60 members of Congress cited the investigation of Quality Pork Processors in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging the USDA to halt the expansion of HIMP. More than 180,000 people have echoed this, signing Compassion Over Killing’s petition to Hormel and the USDA, calling for an end to HIMP.
Though it was anticipated that in early 2016 the USDA would announce its decision on HIMP, with the expectation being that it would open up this dangerous program to all pig slaughterhouses nationwide, that decision has been delayed. So the good news is that program has not been expanded. But alarmingly, the five pilot facilities, including Quality Pork Processors, are continuing to operate under HIMP permission, and each day thousands of animals may be forced to endure egregious abuses in a profit-driven attempt to keep line speeds moving faster and faster at all costs.
However, Ettinger does not need to wait for the USDA to force his hand. As Hormel approaches its 125th anniversary, he is in a unique position of power to bring his company to the right side of history by ending its voluntary participation in this dangerous high-speed slaughter program. This is the right thing to do – for the sake of the animals, consumers and company employees.
Leahy graduated from UCLA School of Law with a J.D. in 2006. She lives in Los Angeles and is the general counsel for Compassion Over Killing, a national nonprofit animal protection organization.