Updates to Humane Slaughter Regulations Long Overdue

In September, at a federally inspected slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania, a pig was shot three times in the head, but remained alive—vocalizing after each shot. The facility did not have a backup stunning device, so a worker drove home, returning 10 minutes later with another gun to finally put the animal out of his misery.

At a Georgia slaughter plant in May, a cow was shot a total of six times with one firearm, because a more appropriate device was not on hand. In yet another recent incident, this one at a Connecticut slaughterhouse in October, workers resorted to slitting the throat of a sheep without rendering the animal insensible to pain, because the electric stunner did not work and no backup device was available.

These and hundreds of similar incidents, which detail a tremendous amount of animal suffering, could have been prevented had the US Department of Agriculture acted in a timely manner on a rulemaking petition submitted by AWI in May 2013. Within the petition, we requested that the department make reasonable changes to the regulations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) in order to significantly improve the welfare of animals at slaughter.

The petition requests that all slaughter establishments be required to have a written humane handling plan, employees trained in animal handling, and properly functioning equipment (including backup stunning devices). After conducting a review of more than 1,000 inhumane slaughter violations that occurred at federal and state slaughter plants between 2007 and 2012, we concluded that these changes would reduce animal suffering at slaughter.

AWI, represented by the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at George Washington University Law School, filed a lawsuit in December against the USDA for its undue delay in responding to the petition. We are suing the USDA under the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires agencies to respond to citizen petitions for rulemaking within a reasonable time.

Ironically, we only have knowledge of inhumane handling incidents because the USDA has dramatically increased its enforcement of the humane slaughter law in recent years. USDA veteran Al Almanza was just beginning his tenure as administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service in early 2008, when extreme animal abuse at the Westland-Hallmark plant in Chino, California—caught on film by animal protection advocates—resulted in the largest beef recall in US history. Almanza’s agency responded by increasing slaughter plant suspensions for inhumane handling by roughly tenfold.

Animal advocates have kept up the pressure on the USDA, with subsequent undercover investigations of animal mishandling at Bushway Packing in Grand Isle, Vermont, Central Valley Meat in Hanford, California, Catelli Brothers in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and Quality Pork Processors in Austin, Minnesota. These efforts have paid off in the form of sustained high levels of plant suspension for egregious humane slaughter violations.

While a suspension surely has some value as a deterrent, enforcement actions are after the fact—after animals have already suffered in some horrible fashion. Repeated violations, as in the examples showing what can occur when no backup stunning device is available, indicate a failure of the regulations to adequately fulfill the intent of the original legislation.

Regulations are intended to evolve over time, as science and industry practices evolve. However, the USDA has not amended the HMSA regulations for the purpose of improving animal handling at slaughter in nearly 40 years, since the original regulations were adopted. In the intervening time, tens of thousands of incidents of inhumane handling at slaughter have been observed and documented by inspection personnel at federal and state slaughter establishments. In all likelihood, many, many more have gone unobserved or unreported. Yet, no attempts have been made to improve the regulations in order to prevent these incidents from happening.

Prudence dictates that commercial slaughter establishments should not be allowed to slaughter animals unless the facilities have a humane handling plan, trained employees, and properly functioning equipment—as proposed in our petition. In fact, the suggested changes are recognized in the international slaughter guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health, the humane slaughter guidelines of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the meat supplier specifications of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which procures meat products for federal nutrition assistance programs.

We estimate that up to half of all inhumane handling violations—including those responsible for the most extreme animal suffering—could be avoided by the regulatory revisions proposed in our petition. The USDA is shirking its duty as a regulatory agency by refusing to initiate rulemaking to amend the HMSA, particularly given that many of the causes of inhumane slaughter are well known and easily addressed.

The AWI petition, submitted to the USDA in May 2013, requests the following changes to the regulations of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act:

  • Every establishment shall develop a written, systematic humane handling plan in order to ensure the humane handling and slaughter of all animals.
  • Establishment personnel shall be trained in humane handling of animals prior to first coming in contact with any animal, and at regular intervals thereafter.
  • Establishments shall maintain at least one backup stunning device that is checked and cleaned at least weekly, and the routine maintenance recorded.
  • Chemical, mechanical, and electrical stunning equipment shall be routinely tested and maintained.
  • If more than one stunning method is used at an establishment, guidelines shall be posted in the stunning area regarding the appropriate stunning device with regard to kind, breed, size, age, and sex of the animal to produce the desired results.
  • Guidelines shall be posted in the stunning area regarding the proper placement of mechanical stunning devices for all species of animals slaughtered at the establishment.

A version of this article by Dena Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director, previously appeared in the Huffington Post.