By Troy Shaheen, VTDigger
Mercy for Animals, an animal protection group based in California, is calling for an investigation into Vermont Packinghouse for what it calls “unfair and deceptive business practices.” The advocacy group filed complaints last week with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Attorney General.
State regulators fined the slaughterhouse shortly after the state received the letters from Mercy for Animals. The complaints cite USDA records documenting 15 noncompliance violations over the past two years and four violations over the past six months for repeated failure to properly stun animals. Two more violations were cited in late May.
Mercy for Animals says the handling violations at Vermont Packinghouse contradict claims that the company is committed to animal welfare.
The Vermont Packinghouse website says the company slaughters animals with “respect and dignity,” and the company has made claims through the media that its animals are “ethically slaughtered.” Vermont Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond said the issue was being referred to the consumer protection division, which will determine whether it warrants further investigation.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture this week charged Vermont Packinghouse with six counts of violating humane slaughter laws and proposed a $1,500 administrative penalty. Vermont Packinghouse has exercised its right to a meeting with the agency to review the penalty. That meeting will take place next week.
Mercy for Animals says the alleged contradiction between Vermont Packinghouse’s animal welfare claims and its violations of humane slaughter laws amounts to potentially “false or misleading advertising” and is a material concern to Vermont Packinghouse customers, as well as the farmers who send their animals to be slaughtered there and the retail consumers who contract with the slaughterhouse.
Stefanie Wilson, a staff attorney for Mercy for Animals, says the number of suspensions over a six month period make it an especially egregious offender not only in Vermont, but the entire United States.
USDA records indicate that over the past 10 years, only three slaughterhouses in the country had received five or more suspensions. While Vermont Packinghouse president Arion Thiboumery declined to address the specific complaints around alleged “deceptive business practices,” he said that animal rights groups like Mercy for Animals “send these kinds of letters out every day in the hopes the media will pick them up.”
According to Thiboumery, Vermont Packinghouse submitted letters countering the allegations to both the Vermont Attorney General’s office and the Agency of Agriculture this week.
He also said Vermont Packinghouse was considering a libel lawsuit against Mercy for Animals. Thiboumery declined to provide VTDigger with copies of the letters.
“There have been no material developments in what’s happened here since the story of the four suspensions was reported previously,” Thiboumery told VTDigger, June 19.
Dr. Kristin Haas, state veterinarian and director of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s food safety program, said her office has not yet decided whether or not to recommend the Attorney General investigate Vermont Packinghouse for “deceptive business practices,” and that it will likely depend on the outcome of the upcoming meeting between Vermont Packinghouse and the agency.
“They have a humane handling plan written down and my job is to have a dialog that allows us to gain a better understanding of whether or not they are able to stick to that plan,” said Dr. Haas. “A written plan is pretty useless if it isn’t followed.”
Vermont Packinghouse is a joint venture between the Vermont distributor Black River Produce and the Minnesota slaughter and processing business Lorentz Meats. It opened in 2014 with the help of a $50,000 Working Lands Enterprise Initiative award from the State of Vermont.