Killing cows is no big deal in Nevada, where beef and cattle ranching is the top agricultural industry.
But in March, when it took three shots to the forehead from a bolt gun to “stun” a cow about to be killed at the University of Nevada, Reno’s slaughterhouse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in and briefly suspended slaughtering at the facility. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) also issued a notice of intent to take enforcement action.
The government’s inspector heard the first shot, taken at 8:33 on the morning of March 14, 2019, according to the USDA’s letter:
At approximately 0834 hours, the CSI heard the employee announce again that the stunning gun was going to be fired again. The CSI looked over at the knock box, heard the shot, taken with a hand-held captive bolt gun, and observed the heifer initially collapse in the knock box and then stand back up. The employee reloaded the captive bolt gun, announced that the gun would be fired again, and at approximately 0835, stunned the heifer for the third attempt. The heifer collapsed in the knock box and stayed down.
“This is an egregious act of inhumane handling of animals in connection with slaughter, as this animal was not rendered insensible upon the initial knock, requiring an additional stunning blow until the animal was effectively knocked,” the USDA’s notice of intent says.
“This action was initiated due to your firm’s failure to maintain or implement required controls to prevent the inhumane handling and slaughtering of livestock at your establishment and to appropriately handle animals…” reads the letter from the USDA to Wolf Pack Meats, the trade name of the UNR slaughterhouse, which has a retail operation selling the meat of state-raised animals to the public.
Human error blamed
Wolf Pack Meats blamed an employee for the incident, according to the letter.
“During the call and in your follow up clarification email sent on March 15, 2019 after the call, you stated that the employee, to be removed from stunning duties, did not wait for the heifer to properly raise its head to have a clear shot,” the USDA wrote. “You stated that the three employees who will stun cattle, were trained to only activate the stunning device after precisely locating the stunning blow or gunshot.”
Wolf Pack Meats director Amilton de Mello PhD, told the Current the incident is attributable to human error, not a poorly trained employee.
“This happens in very large companies frequently,” de Mello said in an interview. “Tyson Amarillo had the same problem a month before. Mississippi State had the same problem. A big company in North Carolina, too.”
De Mello said it’s never happened before during his lengthy tenure at Wolf Pack Meats.
A spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service said the agency only briefly suspended slaughtering at Wolf Pack Meats because the plant has a “robust plan” in place and took corrective action following the incident.
The device used to stun cattle before slaughter is known as a captive bolt pistol, a cattle gun, stunbolt gun, or stunner. It’s designed to forcefully strike the animal in the forehead with a bolt to render it unconscious.
The USDA, in its letter to Wolf Pack Meats, suggested a revision to its process for stunning cattle but the slaughterhouse declined to make the change.
“The USDA is in our plant every day. If we do not do the right thing they are going to stop us,” de Mello told the Current.
Animal welfare advocates study the percentage of animals stunned on the first try in determining humane treatment, but figures vary widely by source.
“We write our own animal welfare program. Ours is based on a safety knock to make sure the animal is unconscious. You can’t butcher a dead animal. They have to be alive. They die when the blood comes out,” de Mello said.
Wolf Pack Meats is popular among ranchers in Northern Nevada, who bring their animals to the facility for slaughter. With high demand for pricey locally-grown, grass-fed beef, business is good. In fact, Wolf Pack Meat is self-sustaining. But not to the point where it can do without its university affiliation.
Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly told the Current via a spokesman that he was unaware of the incident, as were members of the Board of Regents.
University slaughterhouses have drawn protests but are relatively common, especially in agricultural areas such as California.
“Other universities do have animal science programs. All these universities also have plants,” de Mello said. “It’s part of the land grant mission to teach agriculture. It goes from farm to fork.”
Wolf Pack Meats was established in 1967, originally as a meat lab. After the recession, and threatened with state budget cuts, the plant had to become self-sustaining, de Mello said.
“Everyone wants local. Everyone wants grass-fed,” he said.
Wolf Pack Meats slaughters approximately 30 to 40 animals a week, a fraction of the amount killed by large plants.
Local ranchers, who lack slaughtering capabilities of their own, bring their livestock to Wolf Pack Meats and leave with packaged, USDA-inspected meat to sell at farmers’ markets.
“We have a significant number of farmers, and consumers are willing to pay a premium. No one wants uninspected meat,” de Mello said.
“We have internships, positions for student workers,” he added. “We teach six courses with 350 students directly exposed to Wolf Pack Meats and the farm in general. Everyone who works in the plant should be trained.
“We have a significant amount of support of local farmers,” de Mello continued. “They are very humble people. They live from the land. Kids bring their animals. They are relying on us to do the right thing.”
Wolf Pack Meats remains under the monitoring of the USDA.
Meat in the future
The sale of animals and animal products in Nevada fetched $476 million in 2017, up 7 percent from the previous year.
As the world’s demand for protein escalates, deMello doesn’t anticipate changes to his operation.
“If you look at the forecast for the next five to 10 years, we are very sustainable for what we produce. In 20 years we need to be able to provide more food than we do now,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we were harvesting animals 900 or 800 pounds. Now, they are 1,300 or 1,400 pounds. What I feel is there will be additional protein sources. People will be eating more soy protein. But there will still be meat in the future.”