By Scott Shurtleff
GROTON -- After a Blood Farm employee was seen allegedly hitting a pig destined for slaughter in the head, a federal Food Service Inspection Service inspector warned him the abuse was unacceptable.
The slaughterhouse employee responded by telling him "I don't give a (expletive)."
The USDA, however, as well as the family that has run the business for generations, felt otherwise. The West Groton facility was issued a "Suspension in Abeyance" last month, its third in the past two year, for alleged violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Although the penalty imposed by the USDA was only weeks two long, lapsing on June 7, the issue will likely linger far beyond that.
The employee was immediately terminated.
The animal rights group PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- is pushing for harsher punishment against both the individual worker accused in this latest complaint and against the business's management. In a letter sent to the U.S. District Court's Massachusetts District on June 11, PETA investigators demanded that Blood Farm personnel be charged with criminal conduct in addition to the professional sanctions already levied.
Spanning 80 acres on West Main Street in West Groton, Blood Farm is as old as the town itself. The family-owned business has a heritage seven generations deep, currently headed by Richard Blood.
"We have been in operation for about 80 years," said Sharon Blood, business manager and HAZOPS (hazard and operability study) coordinator. "What our employee did was unacceptable and not part of his general nature or of our high standards. We are all animal lovers here, despite our profession."
Normal protocol is to stun the animal before slaughter in order to render it senseless, usually with a gunshot blast to the head. Many of the violations at Blood Farm, including two suspensions last year between April and August, are for ineffective stunning, including shots that left the animal standing and aware. When several shots are necessary to stun the animal, it is considered inhumane and in violation of federal guidelines.
In the most recent incident, "The employee was observed using the aluminum divider to hit the animal (swine) repeatedly in the head with force," the federal investigator wrote in the report.
It was that Food Service Inspection Service inspector's observation of the act, as well as the alleged perpetrator's vulgar response in reaction to the inspector's admonishment, that led to the suspension. The initial report filed by the inspector indicates that after warning the employee of his unacceptable treatment of the animal, he placed a Regulatory Control Action (RCA) tag on the hoisting area. This caused the plant employee to begin the verbal onslaught that included profanity such as: "I don't give a (expletive)," and "(expletive) you."
Sharon Blood said the employee was fired.
"Mistakes do happen, we took immediate corrective action and we abided by the punitive suspension," she said. "And I don't recall us ever having any sanitation violations in all our years in business. All our products are clean and wholesome."
The U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed receipt of PETA's letter but offered no further comment. PETA made the same written requests when the other violations were revealed last summer. After the two incidents of last August, Blood Farm purchased and installed a squeeze chute with head halter that helps stabilize the animal for stunning. But even back then, PETA insisted that the feds file criminal charges.
"Beating an animal in the face, discharging a firearm unsuccessfully, or denying food and water to an animal are acts of cruelty," PETA Investigations Specialist Colin Henstock said, noting all the violations occurred over the past 15 months. "There are a lot of violations for an establishment of that size."
Sharon Blood insists that three offenses is not much in relation to the volume of meat that is processed there. "When the violations of last August (ineffective stunning) happened, we purchased a squeeze chute to help calm and stabilize the animal so that the first shot stuns them sufficiently." Before the squeeze chute, the animals were shot with a shotgun to immobilize them. But they would sometimes turn or squirm. Now, they use a stun gun because the animals are steady and confined.
"We took immediate corrective action back then, and we did this time also by letting our employee go," she added. She called both his act of inhumanity and his profanity-laced dispute with the inspector "unacceptable."
A spokesman for FSIS-USDA explained the normal sets of protocols common to all meat-processing plants. As mandated by the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, "A plant that processes meat, poultry, egg-based products or siluriformes (catfish) can't operate without a government official on site at all times. It has to have an inspector, not just during slaughtering but at all times during operation hours," USDA spokesperson Veronika Pfaeffle said.
Blood is confident that the matter is over -- although PETA has a different outlook -- and says that she and the farm have paid their debt for the act, losing about $10,000 in revenue for the shutdown period. The farm is now back in operation.