TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury Board of Health held its regular meeting on Thursday, Nov. 21 and continued the evidentiary portion and subsequent public hearing of the review of the permit for the keeping of animals for Oliveira farm.
In light of allegations that the piggery and custom slaughterhouse personnel committed an act of animal cruelty, the board has taken up a review of its town issued permits. Attorney Don Borenstein of Andover represented Dinis Oliveira and spoke to the board.
According to Borenstein, the truth of the incident is gruesome but not as described by two delivery persons who were startled by and were witnesses to a decapitation of a cow by bobcat. The incident was reported to local animal control.
Chairperson Raymond Barry stated that there is a portion of the alleged event that is being treated as a criminal case, which is not part of the Board of Health’s purview, but rather an evaluation of a waiver to operate a custom slaughterhouse and the permit for the keeping of animals, both of which were issued through the Tewksbury Board of Health.
At the meeting, Attorney Borenstein provided background details of the operation via a detailed letter presented to the board; the farm has been in Tewksbury for approximately 45 years, operates through the granting of state and municipal permits, is a custom slaughterhouse, livestock dealer, and is subject to routine inspection by the state. Borenstein said the number of animals on the property as of Monday, Nov. 18 were 12 goats, 23 cattle and 24 swine. Oliveira is permitted to keep 50 swine, 35 cattle, 60 goats, 200 chickens and geese, with up to 40 sheep, with up to 80 sheep for one week per year.
Two farm hands assist in the operation, which Oliveira believes is adequate, according to his attorney. The Board of Health had requested consideration of an additional slaughter person and Oliveira has agreed to undertake finding someone.
Borenstein contended that the availability of qualified resources is limited and requested 90 days to find someone. The letter also proposed finding a way that the farm could assure the board that the farm is operated in an acceptable manner by hiring an animal science consultant who would provide an animal welfare report to the board. Borenstein said this is not something the board asked for but that Oliveira would do on his own.
Barry discussed a phone call with the state Department of Public Health who is collecting facts about the situation. Vice Chairperson Robert Scarano asked the attorney to request a DPH inspection.
Scarano said it “lends some organization to the process and is a benchmark,” noting that feedback will help both the farm and the board. Scarano referenced a 2014 document regarding the custom slaughter variance which listed 17 conditions which must be met, and asked for confirmation of the status of those conditions.
Scarano reiterated that the board is seeking compliance not punishment. Conditions 1-8 are of concern and the board is afraid Oliveira is “out of step.”
Scarano detailed the conditions and noted that several deal with safe and sanitary handling of the meat, and the labeling and record keeping of the product. He noted an obligation to the consumer to conduct the slaughter with the highest food safety guidelines in place, and expressed a lack of confidence that this has been the mode of operation. The board expressed a desire to have reporting every Thursday until the next Board of Health meeting.
The board directed the operation, through their attorney, to have a professional engaged in seven days due to the urgency of this matter. One clear point was that a fence must be installed between a residential property at 74 Cinnamon Circle and the farm. The board said it must be installed in 10 days. With that, the evidentiary portion of the hearing was closed.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, resident Jen Nagle suggested a temporary cease and desist of operations based on the fact that DPH has not visited the property since 2016. Nagle is concerned about the welfare of the animals and suggested that until such time as the conditions could be confirmed, it would be wise to temporarily stop operations.
Scarano stated “there is no doubt there are violations,” but the board would have to have a showing of irreparable harm, and that the goal is to bring the operation into compliance.
Doug Sears came to the microphone and reiterated that he would imagine that customers would want the slaughtering done in an appropriate way, and that the steps that are being required should be viewed as welcomed.
Additional supporters in the room included those who get their meat from Oliveira and have for decades. A customer from Tyngsboro spoke in support and explained that the slaughter is “one animal at a time, one goat at a time, not supplying meat to Market Basket,” in other words, not an industrial operation. He said the consumption of goat is for fresh meat, not for religious purposes in his case.
With respect to the 17 conditions, the attorney stated that he did not believe the operation was significantly out of compliance, but that a review would be conducted to address the board’s concerns.
The board’s next meeting will be on Thursday, Dec. 19 at Tewksbury Town Hall. The pre-trial hearing will also be Dec. 19 in Lowell District Court. Oliveira has different legal counsel for the criminal case.