Following Probe, Tough Penalties Proposed For Slaughterhouse Operators

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(Host) Vermont slaughterhouse operators say tough new penalties that some lawmakers are pushing could put them out of business.

Owners of the meat-processing plants say the bill is an overreaction to last year’s shutdown of a Grand Isle operation after allegations of inhumane treatment.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Sound from videotape)

(Dillon) The grainy footage shot last year inside Bushway Packing of Grand Isle showed calves unable to stand being kicked and repeatedly jabbed with electric prods. In one case, an animal was seen being skinned before it was killed. The video – made by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States – led to the immediate shutdown of the Grand Isle facility.

Addison Senator Harold Giard – a former dairy farmer – had a visceral reaction to the videotape.

(Giard) "Made me sick. I watched it the first time, then I watched it a second time just to make sure I understood what I watched the first time. And I did not want to watch it a third time; that’s absolutely sick. Bushway was a total systems failure."

(Dillon) Giard now wants tough penalties – from the present $50 to $5,000 for the first violation – for any Vermont slaughter facility caught violating humane standards of treatment. His amendment also calls for additional prison time for slaughterhouse operators who violate the law, and says the state must shut down any facility found to have more than two violations.

But Giard’s amendment is opposed by slaughterhouse operators – and by members of the House Agriculture Committee. They say that with the exception of the Grand Isle case, the Vermont meat industry has a good track record.

Carl Cushing owns Vermont Livestock and Slaughter in Ferrisburgh. Cushing is a former state meat inspector. He testified by phone this week before the House Agriculture Committee.

(Cushing) "I think your industry is going to look at this as I’m looking at it today, and trying to decide, ‘Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to be treated like a criminal when I know I’m not?’"

(Dillon) Shoreham Independent Will Steven says the committee heard from almost every slaughterhouse in the state, and they all had one clear message.

(Stevens) "It’s a sledgehammer fix to a problem that has existed at one facility and they don’t feel as though it’s an appropriate solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist in their facilities."

(Dillon) Wells River Democrat Chip Conquest says the Senate amendment could lead to stiff fines for relatively minor infractions.

(Conquest) "The way the amendment is written is very broad in that it just refers to violation. Anything, even if an animal was without water because it knocked the bucket over, any violation results immediately in significant fines: $5,000 for the first and on up from there."

(Dillon) Senator Giard says he’s not concerned about the industry’s complaints.

(Giard) "I disagree. If you’re doing a good job, as most of our plants are, this is not going to be an issue for anyone. You handle the cattle in a humane fashion that you are instructed under present law to do…, you’re not going to run into a problem. What’s going to happen is it’s going to catch a few bad actors."

(Dillon) The House Agriculture Committee opposes Giard’s amendment. It’s now up to a conference committee to sort out the differences before the Legislature adjourns.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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