Pontotoc slaughterhouse under federal scrutiny

By Errol Castens and Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

PONTOTOC – Results from a Wednesday U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection of a Pontotoc slaughterhouse accused of animal cruelty are not available, and company officials have yet to make a statement.
Inspectors from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service visited Southern Quality Meats on Wednesday after allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that workers at the facility tortured animals with electroshock instruments intended to stun them for slaughter.
“FSIS district veterinary medical specialists and district office staff visited Southern Quality Meats (Wednesday) afternoon to begin review of the situation recorded on the video, gather more information from company officials and determine next steps,” a USDA spokesman said.
No results of the inspection were available, but he said the agency will take “appropriate steps” to enforce federal law at the facility.
PETA’s website shows a roughly two-minute video that the organization said shows a Southern Quality Meats employee “using electric prongs, normally used to electrically stun pigs prior to slitting their throats, to jab sows and even putting the prongs on one apparently stunned mother pig’s lower abdomen and/or genitals.”
“Properly, that device should be put on the pig firmly, held in place, and the pig rendered insensible to pain,” said Dan Paden, a spokesman for PETA.
The online video – often unclear or obscured – seems inconclusive, but Paden said it’s part of more than three hours of video taken surreptitiously by a Southern Quality Meats employee. PETA also said the packing company has denied the allegations of inhumane treatment.
A Southern Quality Meats official who did not give his name declined Thursday morning to speak about the matter but said the company would issue a statement later that day. By late afternoon the Daily Journal was told that that official had left and that no one else could speak for the company.
Southern Quality Meats is one of several meat-packing facilities in Mississippi that are under regular USDA inspection, which allows them to sell their products across state lines.
The Pontotoc-based slaughterhouse has a prior inspection blemish, according to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service records, which show problems with “Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points” and “Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures” in March 2004.
However, federal inspectors deferred enforcement actions against the company just days later, records show.
No detailed information was immediately available about the 2004 concerns. The Daily Journal filed a Freedom of Information request Thursday with the Food Safety and Inspection service for documents related to the 2004 problems at the facility but has not received a response.
Filings with the Secretary of State show the company was incorporated in 1977 and lists Billy D. Haynie of Pontotoc as president.
Dr. Richard Benton, who heads the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s meat inspection division – a program parallel to the federal inspection system – said state and federal inspectors alike make visual scans of live animals and both visual and tactile inspection of carcasses and internal organs, along with laboratory testing where prudent.
He added that under both programs, humane treatment of animals is required, from availability of feed, water and shade to calm handling techniques and pre-kill stunning.
“Different species are rendered unconscious in different ways. Electric shock is used to render hogs unconscious,” he said, noting electrodes are placed to direct current through the brain. “Typical on cattle would be a captive bolt. The bolt comes out and renders them unconscious. It does not penetrate the skull or the hide.”
PETA is demanding that the feds take stringent action against the company.
“FSIS can and should suspend slaughter operations at Southern Quality Meats until the company can prove that all pigs will be immediately and effectively stunned before slaughter,” Paden said. The animal rights organization also is asking the Mississippi State Department of Education to suspend its contracts with Southern Quality Meats.
“PETA is calling on the Board of Education to impose an immediate ban on buying the flesh of pigs mistreated and killed at this plant,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA senior vice president of cruelty investigations.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle confirmed that the state has a contract with Southern Quality Meats for pork for its school nutrition programs but did not have amounts immediately available.
“That contract follows all state and federal guidelines,” she said. She added that the department has not been informed of any results of the FSIS inspection and that she could not comment on the future of that contract if PETA’s allegations are proven true.
errol.castens@journalinc.com