USDA briefly shuts Twin Pine Farms' slaughter line over 'inhumane' treatment

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
Cattle graze in a field. Monday, June 6, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
  • The Humane Slaughter Act was revamped in 1978 when the inspector’s role changed to watch slaughter lines “more heavily for an inhumane kill,” Dennis Ilyes said.
  • Senior Director of Investigations of the United States Humane Society Mary Beth Sweetland said regulations are necessary.

The operator of Twin Pine Farms in Seven Valleys insists that his employees humanely handle beef cattle, which is why he's infuriated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture briefly shut down the farm's slaughter line in April.

A USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service deputy district manager alleged on April 18 that a Twin Pine Farms employee used "egregious" and "inhumane" methods to kill a steer.

A USDA "Notice of Suspension" letter reported the farm's slaughter line was briefly shut down. 

The consumer safety inspector claimed to have witnessed the steer conscious after it was stunned and hung, and before its first cut to "bleed the animal," the USDA letter reported. A second cut and a second stun were administered, the letter explained

Federal regulations require a stun to “produce immediate unconsciousness" in animals before they are "shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut."  A stun should cause "a minimum of excitement and discomfort," according to the letter. 

Mary Beth Sweetland, the senior director of investigations for the U.S. Humane Society, called Twin Pine Farms temporary shutdown “a slap on the wrist.”

“It is terrifying for any animal to regain consciousness while they are hanging by one leg upside down,” she said. 

Dennis Ilyes, who runs Twin Pine Farms with his brother Robert, the owner, said his workers follow the rules.

"There was no possible way for us to know that the animal was going to regain consciousness," Ilyes said. He added that the inspector had a background in poultry inspection, not beef cattle inspection. 

The letter noted, he continued, when the steer was hung, its "head and neck were limp."

Inspectors used to show up to make sure "nothing could contaminate the meat," until The Humane Slaughter Act was revamped in 1978, he said. 

The federal act governs and administers rules for preventing the inhumane treatment of "cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules or other equine in slaughtering establishments," according to the USDA.   

John Miller, of the MPL Law Firm, said Dennis Ilyes made a swift adjustment as to how his employees stun animals when he was shut down. However, Miller added, Dennis Ilyes believes he followed the Humane Slaughter Act.

“It’s a subjective call by the inspector when an animal has a nerve twitch, which happens,” Miller said. “The animal was dead.”

Food Safety and Inspection Service temporarily shut down Twin Pine Farms in Seven Valleys for an allegedly treating a steer "inhumanely" on its slaughter line. (Submitted)

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, the regulatory arm of the USDA, should have a broader conversation about how farmers' slaughter lines are inspected, Miller continued. When an inspector accuses a site of using inhumane methods, the slaughter line is shut down, rendering it temporarily inoperable, he added.

That could lead to tensions, Miller said, which happened at Twin Pine Farms in early May after Dennis Ilyes reassured the USDA of several changes he implemented.

Dennis Ilyes alleges that a federal inspector told his employee to use a "food-grade oil" on a saw. Dirt ended up on his cattle, he said.

The slaughter line again was temporarily shut down, Miller said. That 's when Ilyes retained Miller to appeal his case, Miller explained.

“The USDA will never admit they’re wrong,” Dennis Ilyes said. “They will give you the satisfaction that you weren’t wrong, but they will never admit they were wrong.”

Among the several changes he implemented, the USDA noted in an April 23 letter, were his efforts to document that his employees were retrained using the stun device and that the stun device is now regularly examined for a bolt that fully extends upon discharge, as well as tested every three months. 

Miller said the USDA's camera-use policy should be evaluated as to how it can create fairness when situations like Ilyes' arise.

Maria Machuca, public affairs specialist at FSIS, explained that cameras may be used to “monitor operations and facilities for various purposes,” including “to ensure that livestock are handled humanely.”

However, she added, farmers may not use video or other electronic monitoring or recording equipment" in a manner to harass, intimidate or interfere" when inspectors are performing their duties, according to FSIS regulations.

"Recording the comings and goings of inspectors," and “using a video camera that pans or constantly moves along the evisceration line focused on the line inspector” could be deemed harassment or intimidation, Machuca noted.