RANTOUL — Two hogs that were supposed to be unconscious on a slaughter line narrowly missed being placed in a scalding tank while awake at a Rantoul hog processing plant, according to a USDA inspection report.
Rantoul Foods, 205 Turner Drive, was cited for violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act last month. The company faced suspension of inspection, which would have prohibited it from putting its product on the market.
The plant, located west of Rantoul in the village’s industrial park, implemented procedures to ensure humane methods of slaughter and continues to operate.
Mary Beth Sweetland, the senior director of investigations with the Humane Society of the United States, however, said she wonders how many other hogs were basically scalded to death while awake before the problem was rectified.
"The USDA inspector who caught this thing, the supervisory public health veterinarian who saw this double whammy of cruelty, if you will, ... it’s very rare that an inspector catches one offense," Sweetland said. "It is even rarer that they catch two in the same time frame."
Sweetland said one problem with the inspections process is that USDA inspectors are allowed to spend only five minutes a day in animal handling. The rest is spent making sure the foods sold to consumers are safe.
"It’s just astounding that this was pure happenstance and that the public health veterinarian caught it, kind of on the fly."
Michael Welu, Rantoul Foods plant manager, was unavailable to comment on the violations Thursday.
Prior to slaughter, hogs are placed in a carbon dioxide tunnel to render them unconscious.
The violations were discovered April 17 while the inspector was performing observations of animals on the bleeding line for consciousness. The supervisory public health veterinarian observed a previously stunned market hog start to show signs of consciousness and had a gag reflex, about two minutes after being stuck while on the bleed line.
As the veterinarian tracked the hog, its breathing became more regular and rhythmic in nature.
The veterinarian then saw another market hog farther along the bleed line, about one minute before the scalding tank, "righting itself with controlled movement while lifting its head up to one side and then lower its head and blinking its eyes."
The veterinarian then stopped the line on the blood chain.
The veterinarian returned to the first hog and it, too, was blinking its eyes and lifting its head up, righting itself.
The animals were then stunned with a hand-held captive bolt gun, rendering both animals immediately insensible, and the line was re-started.
The USDA report to Rantoul Foods indicates the incident "constitutes an egregious violation of the humane handling requirements and supports a conclusion that (the company’s) handling of livestock violated the provisions" of federal regulations.
Animals emerging from the carbon dioxide tunnel are required to be in a state of surgical anesthesia and are to remain in this state throughout the shackling, sticking and bleeding process except for those hogs that have died during the CO2 process.
Rantoul Foods responded to the Food Safety and Inspection Service Chicago district office the day of the suspension notification and said the cause of the incident was due to decreased stun time setting on the butina (CO2) system. The following day, however, FSIS indicated the response was inadequate and did not include enough specifics.
Rantoul Foods provided a more detailed response of its corrective measures the same day.
A meeting was held with all hog handlers assigned to the butina area shackle table, sticking area and quality assurance staff.
The company indicated it would set its stunning/speed settings at the slowest of 150 seconds per cycle and said if the problem reoccurred, the line will be slowed further and the stunning time increased.
Any employee who has been trained to recognize signs of sensibility would be assigned to the bleed area and would walk the area to observe hogs for any signs of sensibility. The employee was to be removed from this area, however, once the line has been monitored for one week and it has been determined no hogs are regaining consciousness.
A meeting was also held to review with employees the proper sticking procedure.
The company also said quality assurance staff will increase monitoring activities and that monitoring levels of C02 concentration and stunning procedures will be observed.
Sweetland called USDA’s response to such violations "a slap on the wrist."