I-TEAM: Inhumane treatment, worker injuries and meat contamination alleged at Augusta business

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 6:31 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An all-new I-Team investigation reveals allegations of inhumane treatment of animals, workers injured on the job, and contaminated meat all at one Augusta business.

The I-Team found the USDA stepped in and ordered them to suspend production.

FPL Food is headquartered on New Savannah Road. It's the 12th largest beef processing business in the country, and the largest privately owned in the southeast.

We were embedded with protestors, met with activists, and tracked down federal documents showing wrongdoing for more than five years.

We found the violent death of a cow is just the most recent incident, and it’s not just the USDA flagging FPL Food for inhumane slaughter and contamination. We also uncovered a number of OSHA complaints about workers.

On a quiet morning, just after sunrise on New Savannah Road, a small group gathered outside of FPL.

"I used to be the crazy lady with the sign," Dee Spencer-Carr said. "Just me."

"For like 2 years, and then Breeda found me."

Then others found them, and this is has become somewhat of a regular protest. We were embedded for this one in July 2019, and one year later, we’re showing you this video for the first time.

But it goes without saying, the summer of 2019 was a much different time. In Summer 2020, the Animal Save Movement is stepping up efforts to save humans.

"We stand in solidarity with the workers inside who have been deemed essential," Carr said.

By now, experts estimate at least 32,700 workers at 362 meatpacking plants in 38 states have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 128 workers have died.

In a statement, FPL Food LLC confirmed they've had one case of coronavirus at the Augusta plant. An employee who contracted COVID while off-site was quarantined and is now back at work.

FPL credited their “safety protocols” that “exceed local and state guidelines.” The company is providing a “childcare subsidy” and “face coverings for all.” FPL also gave us photos of workers having their temperature taken before entering the plant and wearing PPE.

Hand sanitizer is provided, and according to a sign, masks are mandatory.

Back outside, these masks and posters are also signs of the time. So much is different, yet the group worries things could also be the same.

But back to 2019.

"There are rules and regulations. We've seen some broken. We've reported them," Carr said.

It’s why we first went undercover in this small group last summer. FPL Food is one of the largest slaughterhouses in the U.S., so we wanted to go undetected -- at least, as a news crew -- to see “business as usual” without a news presence potentially changing anything that day.

Before we get to more of what we saw on the outside, let's talk about what's been documented on the inside. Federal law requires "humane methods" of both handling and slaughter.

But we discovered on January 31, 2020, the USDA suspended operations at FPL Food after someone didn’t adjust the size of a machine. A cow fell off the conveyer, got stuck upside down, and bled to death.

The USDA found “FPL’s food safety and health management plan is ineffective and not being enforced.”

It’s not just animals. We uncovered dangerous conditions for workers, too, unrelated to coronavirus. From 2015 to 2018, we found OSHA conducted at least four investigations. The worst when a “hydraulic saw sliced the abdomen” of a worker, leaving him “severely injured.” Documents also show two “serious safety violations” -- one landing another worker in the hospital.

Still, FPL Food tells the I-Team, "we are constantly training employees on safety measures" and it has an "incident rate below the industry average."

You can also see and hear quite a bit outside the plant. We walked with a few of the protestors to the side, where this is pretty much out in the open.

"When we were starting to leave, we heard some yelling, and I asked the protestors, what is that? Are they yelling at us? And they say no, that's the area where the cows are put into the kill zone," our Meredith Anderson said.

That’s where that inspector witnessed the cow’s inhumane death and suspended operations last January. FPL Food tells the I-Team, “we rectified the situation” by “implementing additional safety measures.”

The company goes on to say this happened on a Friday, so the plant was scheduled "to be closed on the weekend and the following Monday." The USDA cleared the plant to reopen Monday, "and production began again on Tuesday morning."

The I-Team couldn't find any public documentation clearing FPL Food. We're told, "the case is pending appeal with the USDA, and is likely why there is no updated documentation available."

Documentation hasn’t exactly been easy for the I-Team to come by, either. On July 9, 2019, the I-Team sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA, requesting all complaints filed against FPL Food. We didn’t receive a response until eight months later -- this time -- with contamination issues in the meat supply.

The USDA reports 17 meat samples tested positive for salmonella in just a four-month period in 2018 with multiple other samples testing positive for e. Coli. On top of that, inspectors found “no reassessment” or “corrective actions” even after “repetitive positive e. Coli and salmonella results.”

For its part, FPL Food tells the I-Team the company uses a food safety method considered “the Gold Standard” in their industry, and “the sampling process is validation that the testing process works.”

For the activists outside, it all adds up to more questions about what happens inside.

“Since we started, that whole side was open, exposed. And now you see the green veil,” Carr said

FPL Food says they have "12 full-time USDA inspectors on site."

Outside, the group says it will maintain a watchful eye, too.

As for concerns about the meat supply and COVID, the CDC says there’s currently no evidence to suggest coronavirus can be transmitted from food to a person. Still, experts suggest washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before you prepare or eat anything.

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