DES MOINES — Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge said Monday if her department had jurisdiction, she would shut down and investigate a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville that critics say makes cattle suffer needlessly.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its own investigation of AgriProcessors in Postville last week, but Judge said state inspectors don't have authority over the plant.
The federal probe came after the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video shot inside the plant with a hidden camera. AgriProcessors has been allowed to remain open during the investigation.
See the video on PETA's site by clicking here.
Judge, who viewed the PETA film last week, said kosher slaughter when done correctly is quick and humane. But she questions whether that is the case at the Postville plant.
"It's disturbing. Certainly it's nothing I would condone, or any of my meat inspectors or veterinarians would condone," Judge said of the slaughter practices inside the plant.
Judge called on the USDA to take quick action at the Postville facility if inspectors find problems.
The state agriculture agency does inspect some Iowa plants, but those firms don't ship meat out of state as AgriProcessors does, Judge said. She said state inspectors have never been inside the Postville facility.
AgriProcessors spokesman Mike Thomas said what was shown on the video could be easily misinterpreted and said the company is confident its practices are humane because they adhere to Jewish law.
"Kosher slaughter is defined as humane by the federal government," he said.
He said PETA is singling out his plant to push its own extreme political agenda.
"Like the vast majority of folks in the U.S., we believe in the humane treatment of animals. We also believe in the free exercise of religion, and it would be a shame to allow these folks to put their political agenda in front of other people's religious practice," Thomas said.
Temple Grandin, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, consults on slaughter practices with some of the nation's top meatpackers. Her clients have included Swift, Excel, and IBP/Tyson as well as a number of kosher plants around the world.
She called the video showing AgriProcessors workers ripping the trachea out of cattle while they were still alive and conscious "horrific."
"I thought it was the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe it. I've been in at least 30 other kosher slaughter plants, and I had never ever seen that kind of procedure done before," Grandin said.
The video also showed rough handling of the cattle and the improper use of electric prods on the cattle's heads, Grandin said.
Most of the country's meatpacking plants have worked hard to improve animal welfare at their facilities in recent years, said Grandin, who called the AgriProcessors situation a black eye on the industry.
"I've seen kosher slaughter really done right, so the problem here is not kosher slaughter. The problem here is a plant that is doing everything wrong they can do wrong," Grandin said.
PETA, an outspoken and sometimes controversial animal rights group, played parts of their graphic video at a news conference Monday.
The group claims the video shows workers ripping the animal's trachea out of their throats, before a machine dumps them on a concrete floor where they stumble and attempt to stand up while they are still bleeding from the throat.
PETA spokesman William Rivas-Rivas said the video showed some cattle staggering and bellowing in pain up to three minutes after their throats are slit and their esophagus ripped out.
He said PETA was tipped off to the practices in the plant through an anonymous letter. The group recruited a private investigator to shoot video inside the plant.
"What we found were atrocities that were still hard for us to believe," he said. Rivas-Rivas is hoping AgriProcessors will face penalties under both federal and state law, including charges under Iowa's animal cruelty laws.
Judge said any charges of animal cruelty would have to be brought by local law enforcement officials, not her office.
Allamakee County Attorney William Shafer, the top prosecutor in the county where AgriProcessors is located, could not be reached for comment Monday.
AgriProcessors has defended its slaughtering techniques, which it says adhere to Jewish law. The plant uses large knives to slice the cattle's throats, the approved way to slaughter under kosher principles.
Most packing houses typically use electric stunners to render cattle unconscious before slaughtering them. But kosher practices prevent sick or injured animals from being slaughtered, which rules out using electrocution to stun cattle in the slaughter process.
Judge said when kosher slaughters are done correctly, it is humane and animals are killed almost instantly.
"That is certainly not what we saw on that film," Judge said.