Expert Voices

Extreme Abuse of Calves Leads to Immediate Shuttering of N.J. Slaughterhouse (Op-Ed)

Angus calf in a pasture
An Angus calf on grazing lands. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from a post on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) responded quickly to shut down a New Jersey slaughterhouse plant after The HSUS asked for enforcement action and provided the federal agency with footage of our latest undercover investigation into abuses and the continuing mistreatment of downer calves — in this case, at the Catelli Bros. slaughter plant in suburban Monmouth County, N.J., Following the USDA's action, The HSUS publicly released its materials.

Our undercover investigator documented calves being forced to rise to their feet by men who wrapped the calves' tails around their hands — lifting the entire weight of the calf by this appendage. One calf with a broken leg was dragged by a chain around his neck and other calves were struck, kicked, pulled by their ears and sprayed with water. The plant manager warned workers not to take some of these actions when the USDA inspector was around — an indirect admission that he knew that workers were breaking the law on animal handling. 

You may recall the 2009 HSUS investigation of Bushway — a calf slaughter plant in Grand Isle, Vt., where we found calves too weak to walk being kicked, shocked, thrown and dragged to slaughter. That case prompted The HSUS to file a petition with the USDA asking that the agency close a loophole in the regulations that allowed these downed calves to be set aside to see if they could recover enough to walk onto the kill floor. The USDA requires euthanasia for downed adult cattle at slaughter plants, but the rule excludes calves. Where humane handling is concerned, the problems are the same — no bulls, cows, or calves should be subjected to this treatment, regardless of their age or gender.

Our investigator captured still-conscious calves trying to right themselves on the bleed line. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) — for which The HSUS works to secure substantial funding each fiscal year — requires that animals be unconscious before they are shackled and hung upside down so their throats can be slit. Our investigation also found that some calves undergoing shechita (ritual slaughter) remained conscious for more than two minutes after their necks were opened up. Unfortunately, the HMSA doesn't specify how soon ritually-slaughtered animals should reach an unconscious state.

Bernie Rollin, distinguished professor of animal science at Colorado State University watched our video and wrote, "Of all the atrocity videos I have viewed, the current video of the slaughterhouse at Catelli Brothers must be ranked among the three worst." The treatment of the calves at Catelli outraged Rollin enough to write: "The conclusion to be drawn from this video data is self-evident. This plant should be closed down immediately."

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It took an HSUS undercover investigation released in 2008 to prompt USDA, a year later, to act on our long-standing demand that downed dairy cows not be abused. That investigation at the Hallmark slaughter plant in southern California showed "spent" dairy cows being shocked, water-boarded, and in some cases, tormented by being tossed around on the sharp tines of a front-end loader.

It's been more than four years since our Bushway investigation about downer calf abuses.  Our Catelli Bros. investigation shows that similar abuses are still occurring. There is a federal law prohibiting cruelty in slaughter that has been in place for more than half a century — it was the first campaign of The HSUS at the time of its founding in 1954. 

But, in too many quarters, we see that law's basic requirements being ignored by those charged to observe and to enforce it, and in this case, we see a glaring deficiency in the law that needs to be corrected regarding the abuse of downer calves. While we applaud USDA for shutting down this plant, we should not need HSUS investigations to call out these abuses plant by plant. Stronger enforcement and more consistent legal standards on downers are what USDA should serve up.

You can watch the investigation footage here, however please know that the content is very graphic and may be upsetting to some viewers.

Update: Since the investigation and the suspension of the inspectors at the plant, the plant reopened after being closed for two weeks. However, the suspension was lifted only after the plant identified corrective and preventive measures to bring the facility into compliance with the humane handling requirements. The HSUS continues to pressure the USDA to close the loophole that allows downer calves to be slaughtered for human consumption.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "Protect and Serve — Including the Animals.   This article was adapted from "HSUS Undercover Investigation Shutters NJ Slaughter Plant," which first appeared on the HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.