The V.I. Department of Agriculture has received equipment needed to lift a federal suspension at St. Croix’s abattoir brought on by inhumane handling of cattle, the department’s commissioner, Carlos Robles, said Tuesday.
Robles began his testimony at a budget hearing before the 32nd Legislature’s Committee on Finance by addressing the status the abattoir, which has been unable to process cattle since April. The processing of other livestock, such as pigs and goats, has continued at the facility.
Federal compliance issues at the abattoir stem from two incidents that occurred during the “stunning” of cattle prior to slaughter, one in October, 2016, and another in March, 2017.
Federal law requires that no more than two attempts be made at stunning an animal before slaughter. Inspection reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services, which are available online, relay in unpleasant detail how the incidents at St. Croix’s abattoir amounted to “egregious noncompliance” of humane livestock handling.
After the October incident, during which up to 24 attempts were made to render a Senepol bull unconscious, the abattoir was briefly closed while handling procedures were revised and submitted to the FSIS regional office in Atlanta for approval.
The abattoir was re-opened two weeks later, but a similar incident in March prompted another critical report from the FSIS and the suspension of cattle processing at the facility.
According to Robles, one of the things needed for the abattoir to meet humane handling compliance is a federally-sanctioned head restraint for livestock undergoing processing. He said his department has now acquired that equipment after a team was sent to a private abattoir in Puerto Rico to observe processing there.
Robles said that because of the urgency of the need, the equipment was purchased using a senior administrator’s credit card rather than through the standard government procurement process, and will be installed “as soon as possible.”
“I want to apologize to the cattle men and women whose livelihood has been affected by this unfortunate situation,” said Robles. “We appreciate your criticisms, your visits to the office, your suggestions, but most of all your patience.”
Like most V.I. government agencies, the Department of Agriculture is expected to see a substantial budget decrease in fiscal year 2018 due to the government’s inability to access capital markets.
In the case of Agriculture, the governor’s recommended General Fund appropriation for FY 2018 amounts to approximately $4.08 million, which is $500,000, or 11 percent, decrease from FY 2017. Still, that is more than the department received from the General Fund in any other fiscal year except the current one.
The department’s recommended FY 2018 budget also includes $40,000 in non-appropriated funding from the St. Croix Thoroughbred Fund and the Veterinary Medicine Fund, and $870,000 from the miscellaneous section of the budget. The department also expects at least $563,898 in federal grant monies.
In addition, the DOA generates income via land leases, land preparation services, hay, seedling, animal feed, and fertilizer sales, and veterinary services, which is deposited into the Agriculture Revolving Fund. Projected income in FY 2018 is $255,000.
The DOA has 49 employees: 38 on St. Croix, nine on St. Thomas, and two on St. John. Despite the hiring freeze, Robles said Gov. Kenneth Mapp has allowed the department to fill five critical new positions, including two butchers and two heavy equipment operators.
Robles said he foresees succession issues in the department’s future, since the average age of those working for the department is higher than many other departments. Almost 70 percent of DOA employees are over 50 years old. Robles said this reflects a nation-wide issue that can only be solved by increasing young peoples’ interest in pursuing careers in farming and agriculture.
In addition to the Department of Agriculture, representatives from two other agencies testified at Tuesday’s budget hearing: the Office of the Territorial Defender and the Virgin Islands Public Broadcasting System.
The Office of the Territorial Defender, whose mission it is to represent indigent criminal defendants that appear before the Superior and Supreme Courts of the Virgin Islands, is requesting that the Legislature consider its FY 18 budget request over the governor’s recommended one.
The OTF has requested $4.56 million from the General Fund in FY 18, the same amount it received in FY 17. The governor’s recommendation would cut that amount by $332,880.
The V.I. Public Broadcasting System, or WTJX, is looking at a recommended FY 18 budget of $4.4 million from the General Fund, which amounts to a one percent cut from FY 17’s budget.
Present at Tuesday’s information gathering hearing were Sens. Kurt Vialet, Neville James, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Brian Smith, Tregenza Roach, and Dwayne DeGraff. Sen. Marvin Blyden was excused.