Official blows whistle on food-safety agency

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

A Food Safety and Inspection Service veterinarian blew the whistle on his agency Thursday, telling lawmakers that managers repeatedly failed to heed his warnings about unsafe slaughterhouse practices, claims supported by government auditors who said the agency had failed to consistently enforce humane slaughtering standards.

Dean Wyatt, an FSIS supervisor based in Vermont, described several instances in which he witnessed and reported the mistreatment of pigs at an Oklahoma slaughterhouse. The plant often appealed his decisions to district supervisors based hundreds of miles away in Arkansas that he had never met, Wyatt said.

Wyatt later transferred to Vermont, where he witnessed the mishandling of calves at Bushway Packing in Grand Isle, Vt. He ordered the plant to suspend operations three times, but FSIS officials allowed the plant to reopen following each suspension, he said. Company officials later complained, and Wyatt was ordered to attend training sessions despite his objections, he said.

The Humane Society of the United States last year released video shot by an undercover member who got access to the Bushway facility. The footage appeared to confirm Wyatt's allegations of widespread mistreatment of animals by plant employees. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suspended operations at the plant in October and ordered a criminal investigation.

Peter Langrock, a lawyer representing Bushway Packing, said the company has been working with the USDA, which the FSIS is part of, to address concerns and hopes to resolve the matter in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, Wyatt said that colleagues should have heeded his warnings before the video surfaced.

"I am the exception," Wyatt told members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. "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."

Wyatt's testimony was supported by a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday that found lax enforcement of humane slaughtering standards by agency personnel. The inconsistencies are due in part to unclear guidance and training provided by FSIS leadership, the report said.

Wyatt has been represented last two years by the Government Accountability Project, which has worked with several federal whistleblowers. Jonathan Cantu, a GAP public health and safety associate, said current federal law makes it difficult for some federal workers to share their concerns. Wyatt was lucky that the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), took an interest in his story.

"But this was after suffering two years of retaliation," Cantu said. "So without really strong whistleblower protection laws, it's pretty daunting to others who are seeing these types of violations."

Legislation extending broader protections to whistleblowers has stalled in the Senate. Current proposals would prohibit officials from revoking a whistleblower's security clearance and expand protections to employees who reveal the suppression of government information that might impact health or safety. Similar bills have passed the House in previous years.

Obama administration officials said they are taking steps to improve the agency's enforcement standards.

"We are always looking for ways to better perform our regulatory and enforcement responsibilities," said Agriculture Department spokesman Caleb Weaver. "USDA has a series of stringent regulations and procedures in place to ensure that the humane handling laws are fully enforced, and we believe that whistleblowers play an important role by stepping up and alerting us when the system does not work."

Wyatt credited current USDA officials for meeting with him and listening to his concerns. He said he will return to work as normal on Friday.

"I don't have any expectations," he said in an interview after the hearing. "I'm encouraged that the administration is receptive to what I have to say. I think that they have shown that they really want to see some changes made."

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