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Rights group alleges slaughterhouse cover-up

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – An animal rights group sued the state attorney general’s office on Friday, accusing it of violating public records laws by refusing to release some documents about the slaughter of cows at one of the state’s largest meatpacking plants.

In a lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court, the Humane Farming Association alleged state officials withheld information from their investigation into the association’s complaint about the plant.

The organization, based in San Rafael, Calif., complained in 2000 that cows were being strung up and processed alive at the IBP plant in Wallula — a plant now operated by Tyson Fresh Meats.

The state investigated but declined to prosecute. The organization claims it has new evidence that inhumane practices continue.

“Since that petition was raised and blown off by the government, the evidence we have of the government’s lack of interest in enforcing the law … has played out as one would expect, with continuing lack of compliance,” said Mickey Gendler, the group’s attorney.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office called the complaint preposterous.

“It appears the Humane Farming Association is attempting to use the Public Records Act to air some issues that were thoroughly reviewed and investigated several years ago,” spokesman Gary Larson said Friday. “We’re very surprised that the first notice we received about the concerns of the Humane Farming Association was a lawsuit … filed some time after the public records issue was discussed.”

Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, said Friday, “The Humane Farming Association is resurrecting old, unfounded claims against us in an apparent effort to support the union during labor negotiations at our Pasco beef plant.” Mickelson said the labor contract at Pasco expired in May and negotiations continue.

“We take the issue of proper livestock handling very seriously. It’s not only a moral and ethical obligation, it’s also important from an employee safety and product quality standpoint,” he added.

The lawsuit also accuses the attorney general’s office and the Washington State Patrol of showing favoritism toward the plant, drafting a plan to protect the company and dispense with the investigation as soon as possible, and misusing the public records law to cover up the alleged favoritism.

“The state government and Walla Walla County government were much more interested in protecting IBP than enforcing the law,” Gendler said.

The Humane Farming Association was one of 13 petitioners who submitted a request in 2000 to the attorney general’s office to have the processing plant investigated.

In April 2001, a few days after the state announced it wouldn’t prosecute, the public records request was filed, seeking the release of documents concerning “inhumane and illegal animal handling and slaughtering practices” at the plant.

In general, public records are open in Washington, although some types of records are exempt.

Gendler said the state released thousands of documents in response to the public records request, but refused to release all the paperwork concerning the investigation and a “communications plan,” claiming some information was attorney work product and exempt from disclosure.

The lawsuit said the plaintiffs presented evidence to the state that the IBP plant was operated in violation of the Humane Slaughter of Livestock Act. The state law requires humane methods be used for livestock slaughter and outlaws any act “intentionally inflicting pain or killing an animal by a means causing undue suffering.”

The association offered affidavits from IBP employees who testified that due to high production line speeds, it was impossible for all the cows to be unconscious before slaughtering and that many cows were skinned and dismembered while still alive.

The lawsuit asks the court to fine the attorney general’s office for violating the Public Disclosure Act.

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