Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

MODERN MEAT: BRUTAL HARVEST -- The Gail Eisnitz Interview

"The United States Department of Agriculture isn't simply relinquishing its humane-slaughtering oversight to the meat industry, but is, without the knowledge and consent of Congress -- abandoning the function altogether."
-- Gail Eisnitz
In April of last year Gail Eisnitz from the Humane Farming Association in America headed a major expose through the prestigious Washington Post newspaper. It was based on the unspeakable and gut-wrenching torture and death that goes on behind closed doors in modern day slaughterhouses.
If ever there was an excellent reason why animal rightists have maintained that welfarism (old and new) doesn't work, can't work and won't work this interview will leave the reader in no doubt whatsoever as to the facts of the matter.
If ever there was a time where animal rightists are fed up to the back teeth with the empty rhetoric of welfare reform (old and new), now is that time.
What you are about to read is chilling and a testimony to why welfarism does not work. The Animal Rights Movement has waited some 25 years for welfarism to yield to a Rights way of thinking -- and this has simply not happened, nor will it. It is wrong to think that welfarism is working parallel to animal rightists. The fact is they are diametrically opposed to each other. All attempts to eradicate institionalised exploitation of animals through welfarism have thus failed.
Gail Eisnitz is one of the heroes of the animal rights movement. As an undercover worker there is nothing that she has not seen done to animals on the kill floor of a slaughterhouse. Fortunately for us she has documented it. Skinning and dismembering animals while they are fully conscious, ripping these animals apart into unrecognisable pieces. When will it end?
It was only through Eisnitz's considerable efforts in the first place that this story was brought to light and it's still having repercussions ranging right back to the mighty halls of U.S. Congress. People are talking about the treatment of farm animals for once -- and we have one woman to thank for that. Here is what she had to say.
Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan
Claudette: You have recently had a huge expose in the Washington Post on inhumane and cruel slaughtering practices in modern-day slaughterhouses. How did that come about Gail?
Gail: It was very complicated how it came about. In fact I had been begging the Washington Post for several years to do this story. When we finally exposed the violations at the IBT Plant in Washington State I went back and asked again. Interestingly the individual who had helped us with the case on television used to work with the reporter from the Washington Post that I had been asking to do this piece. When it did transpire that they knew each other I made the person at the Washington State TV station ring the reporter and tell him that if he missed this story he would miss the story of a lifetime.
So it was all very fortuitous the way it worked out.
Claudette: We are interested to know what has been happening since then?
Gail: Actually a lot has been happening. The story itself was somewhat watered down because the Washington Post was afraid it was going to be too graphic for the public. As it happened the public's response was one of the highest reader response stories that they have ever done. Thousands and thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls flooded in expressing gratitude and outrage -- so in this sense it was a successful story. A lot has happened in conjunction with this story. One thing is that this story has had a tremendous impact on U.S. Congress and as a direct result of the story members of Congress and U.S. Senators were horrified with the information. That then enabled us to go to them and they introduced resolutions in the U.S. Congress demanding upgraded enforcements of the Humane Slaughter Act.
The second thing that happened was I worked very closely with the Federal Union that represents all 7000 meat inspectors and as the Washington Post was preparing its story I was writing a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act -- a very involved document, over 100 pages and it clearly documents their failure to enforce the law. It also gives specific language as to how they could enforce the law. The Union representing all 7000 inspectors got up at the Press Conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. with me, and denounced their own agency for not allowing them to enforce their own Act because of industry deregulation and other reasons.
That was really a terrific thing to have the very people who are suppose to enforce the Act, then with me and other animal groups that had signed on to the Petition (representing 13 million animal activists and consumers) being very out spoken about the problem.
Once we filed that petition with the USDA we ran a full-page ad in the NY Times International issue. This issue goes to readers all around the world. We used the petition as a news hook to get attention to the issue that thousands and thousands of people were outraged with the treatment of these animals in slaughterhouses around the country.
Then the next thing that happened -- truly unprecedented -- was Senator Robert Byrd (who is third in line in succession to the Presidency and one of most powerful Senators in the country today) took the information from the Washington Post and stood on the Senate floor and spoke an impassioned speech on behalf of farm animals. People were talking about it like it was one of the most important things that have ever happened to farm animals -- because nobody has ever really talked about them before. To have a US Senator of that prominence think about them is truly amazing. Before he finished his speech he said he was including an extra one million dollars in the budget to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act.
So all these things went together to result in some pretty astounding actions. Now we have an extra one million dollars go into enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act and we have the power of the Meat Inspectors behind us.
I complained to everyone -- I said, "Lookit, they're skinning live cows there," Walker said. Always it was the same answer: "We know it's true. But there's nothing we can do about it."
-- A worker at a Plant speaking to the Washington Post.
Claudette: What, in your view, is the fate of the modern abattoir?
Gail: As far as I'm concerned nothing has changed -- absolutely nothing. Right now the USDA is running for cover, struggling to cover-up basically. As I said we have petitioned them and given them edits from Congress demanding that the law be enforced. They have absolutely no commitment to improving conditions for slaughter-bound animals. Things inside slaughterhouses are as bad as they have always been as far as I'm concerned and that is due to one thing.
Claudette: What is that?
Gail: The USDA refuses to take any action about the outlandish speeds that we have in this country. To think that it is virtually not possible to ensure that animals can be humanely slaughtered at the line speeds that are running here. We run at 400 cattle an hour, 1,100 pigs an hour. That is totally unacceptable. We certainly can if we wanted to ensure humane slaughter ethos to occur.
Claudette: In the Washington Post expose a worker in your American slaughterhouse said that it takes 25 minutes to turn a live steer into a steak. He says that on bad days he sees dozens of animals clearly alive and conscious by the time they get to him. This means that these animals have survived the tail-cutter, the belly-ripper and the hide-puller. He went on to say that these animals are dying "piece by piece". In all your experience Gail what is the solution? In over-taxed meat works the humane treatment of animals is often lost but still, that is no excuse.
Gail: The solution is extremely simple. There are two solutions in fact. In our Petition for the very, very minimum we asked that meat inspectors be actually stationed in that Plant where they can observe animals being handled and slaughtered.
Certainly under new deregulatory policies meat inspectors are nowhere in the area of the places where animals are. They are nowhere near them! I mean to say how can meat inspectors enforce the Humane Slaughter Act and not be anywhere near live animals is just ludicrous. That was our first request. There were a couple of other ones as well. As far as I am concerned line speeds must be reduced. If you are not going to station inspectors in the area where they can actually enforce the regulations, line speeds absolutely must be reduced. There is no two ways about that.
Hogs, unlike cattle, are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are stunned to soften the hides for skinning. As a result, a botched slaughter condemns some hogs to being scalded and drowned. Secret videotape from an Iowa plant shows hogs squealing and kicking as they are being lowered into the water.
--Washington Post expose
Claudette: The US Department of Agriculture oversees the treatment of animals in meat plants, but enforcement of the law varies dramatically from place to place. Are you aware of any noticeable differences/improvements for animals since the publication of your own book "Slaughterhouse?"
Gail: I've seen a lot of activity on the Industry level. Everybody is scurrying around to make it look as if they are doing something but the fact is they are not. They are running around setting up new programmes and new voluntary programmes. Everything they do is a voluntary programme. Nothing is mandated by USDA. No, I see everybody scurrying but that is only because they are in damage control mode.
Claudette: You are in the front-line of exposing shoddy and downright cruel and dangerous practices of how modern meat is produced. What has the reaction been like? I believe you have received hate mail in the process. Is that true?
Gail: Personally I have received very little response from Industry or the USDA. The way they handled the publication of my book and my subsequent revelations in the last two years in exposing the largest meat packer in the world, has been by them remaining silent about it all. They have been extremely non-responsive. On the other hand animal activists and the general public who up until this time had been unaware of these atrocities are just outraged. I mean the response from the general public has been truly amazing. Many people are now learning about things that they have never thought about before. The way Industry deals with it is they act as if they haven't even heard of it before.
Claudette: Again, in the Washington Post expose meat workers talk about the practice of skinning animals alive and they mention the Texas meat company that was cited 22 times in 1998 for violations that included chopping hooves off live cattle. You, however, have always been very careful in not placing the blame on individual workers but on a morally corrupt system whose prime motive is profits over sentient creatures. Is this fair to say?
Gail: That's correct. The workers that I have been working with these past two years are mostly Hispanic and they are truly some of the bravest people in the world.
They come out and they don't care what happens to them. They have gone full-faced on television and they have spoken at Press Conferences to expose what's going on. In short, what they have been required to do in the name of profits for their plant. These poor people, you know a lot of them are maimed and suffer repetitive motion illnesses for life. Companies couldn't care less about their workers. They chew them up and spit them out. It is the same thing what these companies expect of them with the animals that they are slaughtering. The workers know if they do anything that slows down production they will be fired. In the case of the largest Meat Producer in the world that we exposed, two dozen workers there come forward and signed affidavits, went on camera and helped us obtain a video of violence that was occurring there. I just think they are incredibly courageous. When they were doing the interviews they would say "We knew this was wrong, but we didn't know it was illegal and as soon as Gail told us what law we were breaking we were so happy to know about it that we are not going to take this anymore."
"The live cows cause a lot of injuries," said Martin Fuentes, an IBP worker whose arm was kicked and shattered by a dying cow. "The line is never stopped simply because an animal is alive."
--Washington Post
Claudette: According to meat industry estimates, fear and pain cause animals to secrete a large amount of hormones that damage meat and cost companies tens of millions of dollars a year in discarded product. Is this a strong enough argument to hold them to abide to the American Meat Institute's Good Management Practice for Animal Handling and Stunning? I mean, it hasn't been up until now.
Gail: Absolutely not. It is not a good enough reason because the hormones that damage the meat occur for a variety of reasons and is not limited to animals being skinned and dismembered alive. Weather conditions, crowding and transport conditions are all events that cause animals to become "damaged". This is just an excuse that Industry uses to say that we couldn't possibly be doing this because we would suffer catastrophic loses. That is certainly not a reasonable excuse. They certainly like to use it though.
Claudette: One of America's leading experts on slaughterhouse practices, Temple Grandin found in a USDA-funded survey in 1996 that there was a high failure rate among beef plants that used stunning devices (i.e. Captive bolt guns) and that only 36% earned a rating of "acceptable". Although McDonald's and the American Meat Institute pay her she maintains that in the past 4 years there has been "dramatic improvements" because of the pressure that McDonald's have brought to bear on the industry. For example, industry auditors apparently check dozens of plants each year where this wasn't the case before.
Gail: Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. The bottom line is that workers stage inspections for plant visitors. Inspections are scheduled ahead of -- most of them are basically worthless. Illegal shocking devices and prodding devices are put away. Line speeds are reduced, violations are temporarily curtailed. It's virtually impossible to see what's going on inside a plant even if you arrive unannounced because individuals generally have to announce their presence to the plant's guard shack to enter operations. The supervisors in the plants use radios, code words and whistles -- all sorts of things to alert employees that inspectors are coming in. After the surprise visitor has signed the book, met with officials, been given a hard hat and white smock, boots etc -- all of this takes a good half an hour -- then there's a cover-up. We know this for a fact.
These programmes are essentially meaningless. Let me give you a better idea of how it works. In the plant that we recently exposed in Washington State we had nearly two dozen workers signing affidavits saying for years they had been required to skin and chop off the legs of hundreds of thousands of fully conscious animals. We have videotapes shot at that plant depicting fully conscious cattle, opened up and dangling from their bleed rails. It was concluded that criminal activity had occurred and auditors from McDonald's visited the plant at the height of the abuses -- and in spite of the atrocities witnessed -- they gave the plant a "Pass" grade. The Meat Industry then used these audits from that plant and others to say there has been a "dramatic improvement in US slaughter practices". I think that says it all.
Claudette: In your opinion has McDonald's become a positive force in pressing to improve conditions for animals on death row or if the animal rights movement endorses this are we sleeping with the enemy? I mean some of us over here don't want anything to do with McDonald's, Burger King or any other fast-food chain for we see it for the farce that it is. What do you think?
Gail: Here in the US I am constantly being told of how wonderful McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are for implementing these programmes. I think that it is a farce also and I think McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are all aware of what an enormous amount of favourable publicity -- a veritable BONANZA, they have received from this. You can't imagine the amount of publicity they are getting from this. I mean, AP {wire service} runs a story saying, "Thanks to McDonald's, animal welfare says things are better than what they have ever been". It is extraordinarily frustrating. There is just so much positive press about McDonald's over here, it's extremely difficult to get the truth out.
When the video we obtained from IBP was finally exposed on television McDonald's simply slapped the company on the hand and then its back to business as usual. Under what circumstances I'd like to know would McDonald's take meaningful action?
Claudette: In your Washington Post piece it says of McDonald's: Bloodied in past scrapes with animal rights groups, McDonald's has positioned itself in recent years as an ardent defender of farm animals... The words "positioned themselves" bothers me. McDonald's are well aware that their sickly sweet "family" image has taken a battering in regard to their treatment of farm animals. All of this is empty rhetoric, going into damage control on their part.
Gail: Yes, absolutely. That's how I perceive it and nothing I have seen would show me otherwise.
Claudette: You have said that the meat industry's self-inspections are meaningless and that they are designed to lull Americans into a false sense of security about what goes on inside slaughterhouses. Since the Washington Post expose is there anything that has happened that would change your opinion on this?
Gail: No. After spending a decade inspecting the Meat Packing Industry and interviewing workers and inspectors who have spent nearly three million hours on the kill floor, I find it impossible to buy into any assurances that the meat industry tries to buy the public. It is important to keep in mind that this is the same industry that recruits thousands of illegal and underage immigrants. The meat industry has the highest rate of worker's injuries in the country. This industry has incurred the highest rate of Occupational Industry fines in history for subjecting their employees to horrendous working conditions. Industry is so obsessed with maximizing line speeds, that its own workers are often forced to urinate on the line where they are working. The Industry knows it is permanently crippling its employees, firing them and then obstructing their efforts to claim Workers Compensation. In light of the Industry's high disregard for the workers it is hardly surprising to also see this widespread abuse of animals. Concern over the suffering of animals doesn't even show up on this Industry's radar screen .
Claudette: Finally Gail, I'd like to thank you for writing "Slaughterhouse". It was received warmly on this side of the world and the images that you described in it of blatant cruelty remain emblazoned in our memories. We are better activists because of it. Do you have any last words for Australian and New Zealand activists?
Gail: I'm just thrilled to know that Australian activists are aware and interested and vigilant and conscientious about this issue. That's very gratifying to me that people are reading my book over there. I'm particularly thrilled to know that activists in your part of the world are more sensitive to how the meat industry attempts to hoodwink the general public, like it's doing here in the US.
One final word: I'm delighted to have this opportunity to express my gratitude to Australian activists for all of your kind words of support and encouragement over the years. You have been incredibly supportive of my efforts, and for that I am especially grateful. One thing we want you to know is that HFA and I -- and the 13 million activists that are now helping us in this fight -- intend to keep the pressure on USDA and Industry, and we look forward to reporting more successes to you in the days ahead.
Website: Humane Farming Association