Humane Slaughter Laws: Enforcement Up, But Still Insufficient

A new report, Humane Slaughter Update: Comparing State and Federal Enforcement of Humane Slaughter Laws, has just been published by the Animal Welfare Institute. According to the report, nearly three years after the shocking exposé of inhumane practices at a California packing plant, enforcement of humane slaughter laws has increased at both the state and federal levels, but remains low and inconsistent. Furthermore, the mild nature of the penalties (plant closures amounting to a few days or less) are insufficient to deter repeat violators from continuing to commit inhumane acts.

In late 2007, an undercover animal welfare advocate captured on video multiple incidents of egregious cruelty to cattle at the Westland-Hallmark Meat Packing plant in Chino, California. The video showed workers kicking, shocking and abusing animals too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse, even shoving them with forklifts. Brought to the attention of enforcement officials and the public in early 2008, the incident sparked widespread public outrage, caused criminal charges to be filed against two of the employees, and led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history. Sadly, these incidents occurred despite the continual on-site presence of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection personnel and the performance of periodic third-party humane slaughter audits at the plant.

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that meat animals, excluding birds and rabbits (as well as animals slaughtered in accordance with religious law), be made insensible to pain by a single blow, gunshot, or electrical or chemical means before being shackled, hoisted or cut. The law also provides for the humane handling of animals on the premises of a slaughterhouse. The law applies at slaughter establishments inspected by the USDA, or in some cases by state departments of agriculture - which have the authority to take action (including the issuance of noncompliance records, suspensions, and withdrawal of inspection) for violations of the federal humane slaughter law.

Congress held multiple oversight hearings in the wake of the Westland-Hallmark incident, and the USDA took several actions to step up its enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, including conducting an audit of slaughter plants at high risk for humane violations, temporarily increasing the time spent verifying humane handling and slaughter requirements, and issuing various humane slaughter notices and training modules for in-plant inspection personnel.

To judge the effectiveness of these measures and to update a comprehensive, ten-year review of humane slaughter enforcement published by AWI in May 2008,1 AWI conducted a survey and analysis of state and federal humane slaughter enforcement since Westland-Hallmark, using data obtained through state public records, federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and information posted on the USDA website. Among AWI’s findings:

Repeat state and federal violators present a major enforcement problem. Numerous examples of repeat violators were found, including a Wisconsin state plant that was cited for humane violations 34 times in 20 months, and a North Carolina federal plant that was closed down eight times in 30 months for incidents of inhumane slaughter. The percentage of state plants with multiple violations from 2007 to 2009 was up over the previously studied period of 2002 to 2004. At the federal level, the length of time that slaughter plants were shut down for humane violations varied by plant size, with very small plants being closed for the longest periods of time and large plants being closed for the shortest time.

State and federal inspection personnel have inadequate training in humane enforcement and inadequate access to humane slaughter expertise. Enforcement documents reveal that inspectors react differently when faced with similar humane handling violations. Federal inspectors have limited access to humane slaughter experts, while states known to employ veterinary humane slaughter specialists generally have higher enforcement rates. Federal inspectors are about four times more likely than state inspectors to suspend a slaughter plant for a humane handling violation (like taking multiple attempts to stun an animal, cutting a still-conscious animal, or dragging a non-ambulatory animal).

State and federal humane slaughter enforcement was up at both state and federal levels but varied widely among individual states and among individual federal districts. Enforcement was up in terms of the issuance of noncompliance records and suspensions at state inspected plants and suspensions at federal plants. The number of federal slaughterhouse suspensions for humane violations increased seven-fold from 2006-2007 to 2008-2009 (as depicted in the chart below). State suspensions were up sharply as well. However, some states offered no evidence of any enforcement whatsoever, and humane activities differed dramatically among the 15 federal food safety enforcement districts.

Humane enforcement remained low in comparison with other aspects of food safety enforcement. While allocation of resources to humane slaughter activities appears to have increased for state plants, the amount of time spent at federal plants on humane activities appears to be unchanged. Overall, resources devoted to humane handling at the federal level continues to be less than 2 percent of total funding for food safety inspection.

Based on our analysis, AWI has offered the USDA several recommendations for improving the enforcement of humane slaughter laws. Most importantly, AWI is requesting longer suspensions and more frequent withdrawal of inspection (plant closure) for repeat violators. AWI is recommending that, upon a second incident of inhumane handling, a plant be closed for a minimum of 30 days, and that inspection services be withdrawn for a period of at least three years after a third incident of animal abuse.

In addition, AWI has recommended that the USDA develop procedures for referring instances of animal cruelty during slaughter to state or local law enforcement officials for prosecution under anti-cruelty statutes, and that the USDA work to achieve greater consistency in humane slaughter enforcement among state-level meat inspection programs.

Finally, AWI has asked that the USDA make slaughterhouse enforcement records available to the public via posting on the agency’s website. Posting information regarding slaughter plant compliance with humane slaughter laws and regulations would assist the public in making informed decisions about the foods they purchase and consume, and would pressure individual slaughter plants to abide by the humane slaughter law.

Until the USDA makes these records readily available to the public, a list of slaughter plants that have been suspended for humane violations (including, in some cases, actual enforcement documents) is available on the AWI website at Also available on the site is the full report: Humane Slaughter Update.

1 - D Jones, Crimes without Consequences: The Enforcement of Humane Slaughter Laws in the United States, Animal Welfare Institute, May 2008.