Will Custom-Exempt Slaughter Expand at Expense of Animal Welfare?

This is a story of the little known practice of custom-exempt slaughter, how it could expand in size and impact throughout the United States, and why that is almost certainly not a good thing.

The “exempt” in custom-exempt signifies that this type of slaughter is excused from continuous inspection, unlike federal- and state-inspected slaughter, where government officials must be on the premises of the establishment whenever slaughter is being conducted. With custom-exempt slaughter, inspectors need not be present, and, in fact, inspection typically occurs only once or twice per year.

Custom slaughter operations are commonly thought of as the places hunters take “game” animal carcasses to be processed into meat, but they also slaughter cattle, pigs, sheep and goats for anyone who wants meat for themselves, their household, or nonpaying guests. Because the meat is intended for personal use only, packages of custom slaughtered and/or processed beef, pork, lamb or goat must be labeled “NOT FOR SALE,” and the meat cannot be sold, traded, or given away. The rationale behind giving minimal oversight to the custom slaughter industry is that consumers of the meat are generally aware of its origins, and the food safety risk to the general public is low.

But what of the animals being slaughtered at these establishments—where is the assurance that they are being handled and killed humanely? While custom-exempt operations are expected to comply with the federal humane slaughter law, no inspectors are present to ensure that they do so. Members of the public may assume that very small slaughter operations, including those conducting custom slaughter, take better care of animals than large, highly-mechanized slaughter facilities, but this is not the picture portrayed by state and federal slaughter inspection records.

Case in point: Brooksville Meat Fabrication, a custom-exempt operation in Brooksville, Kentucky, that was formerly under federal inspection by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). During a six-month period in 2013, the USDA cited Brooksville at least 10 times for serious violations of humane handling and slaughter regulations. (Almost all concerned the plant’s failure to accurately stun animals in order to render them insensible to pain before slaughter.) Aware of Brooksville’s record, AWI, which monitors federal and state humane slaughter enforcement, urged the USDA to withdraw federal inspection from the plant. Such inspection is necessary if the meat is to be sold across state lines.

In November 2013, the USDA’s Enforcement and Litigation Division prepared a complaint to indefinitely suspend and permanently withdraw the grant of federal inspection from Brooksville Meat Fabrication, finding that the establishment was “unfit to engage in a business requiring Federal inspection under the FMIA [Federal Meat Inspection Act].” In March 2014, after the owner of Brooksville failed to file an answer to the complaint, a USDA administrative law judge signed the withdrawal order. Withdrawal of federal inspection solely due to humane slaughter infractions is extremely rare; in fact, this is the first time the USDA is known to have taken this step.

Brooksville Meat Fabrication continues to kill animals, however, as a licensed custom-exempt slaughter house. It seems illogical that an establishment deemed incompetent to slaughter animals under direct and continuous inspection would be allowed to slaughter animals under almost no supervision at all, but that is the law at present. Instead of taking action to close this obvious loophole, members of Congress are pushing legislation to expand the exemption for custom inspection to all meat sold within a state.

In July 2015, US Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY)—a producer of grass-fed beef himself—introduced the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, which would expand the custom slaughter exemption from federal inspection so that it covers sale of the meat, as well. Specifically, the bill would allow meat that is prepared at a custom-exempt establishment to be sold to unsuspecting consumers at “restaurants, hotels, boarding houses, grocery stores or other establishments in the state that are involved in the preparation of meals served directly to consumers or offer meat and meat food products for sale directly to consumers in the state.”

That Massie represents the same Kentucky district that is home to Brooksville Meat Fabrication is probably no coincidence. In October 2013, after the Brooksville slaughter plant had been suspended for the fourth time for inhumane slaughter of animals, its owner complained to Rep. Massie about his treatment by the USDA. In response, Massie requested that the USDA extend every consideration to his constituent. Although Brooksville eventually lost its grant of federal inspection, Massie introduced legislation that, if passed, would allow Brooksville to operate more or less as before (providing the meat produced is sold in-state).

The PRIME Act was conceived as a solution to the loss of thousands of slaughter facilities throughout the United States over the past 20 years—the result of consolidation within the meat industry that left many small farmers with few options for having their animals slaughtered locally. The lack of local slaughter capacity can create a financial hardship for small farmers and subjects the animals they raise to the stress of long-distance journeys.

While there is a demonstrated need for additional slaughtering and processing alternatives for small farmers, there is also a need—aptly illustrated by the case of Brooksville Meat Fabrication—for continuous inspection of both the food safety and humane animal handling functions of meat production. About half of the states offer the option of state-inspected slaughter, which could provide a solution for some individual farmers or cooperatives. Another option that is receiving increased attention is USDA-inspected mobile slaughter, which can service dozens of small farmers in a particular geographic region.

The public’s desire for alternative food choices presents a challenge: how to promote sustainable and higher-welfare farming, while ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of meat, as well as the humane treatment of animals. Unfortunately the problem is unlikely to be resolved soon. In the meantime, Rep. Massie has said that if the PRIME Act does not pass in this congressional session, he plans to introduce the measure as an amendment to the next farm bill. 

A version of this article by Dena Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director, previously appeared in Food Safety News.

Humane Slaughter Violations at Brooksville Meat Fabrication

April 30, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a heifer with one shot of firearm

June 19, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a pig with one shot of captive bolt gun

July 30, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a steer with one shot of firearm

August 7, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a pig with one shot of captive bolt gun

August 9, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a steer with one shot of firearm

August 9, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a steer with two shots of firearm

August 23, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a pig with one shot of captive bolt gun

September 13, 2013
Failed to prevent a steer from slipping numerous times and falling before being stunned

October 2, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a heifer with one shot of firearm

October 9, 2013
Failed to adequately stun a pig with one shot of captive bolt gun and one shot of firearm