Widespread Animal Suffering at Slaughter
A cow being stunned with a mechanical captive bolt. FSIS, USDA Ineffective stunning of animals is the most frequent violation of the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA) according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) Report released earlier this year. Slaughter of conscious animals, the most inconceivable of atrocities, was the third most common violation. HSA violations including dragging sick and/or disabled animals, excessive use of electric prods, improper stunning and the shackling and processing of conscious animals, were identified at nearly one-third of all slaughter plants in the US. The abysmal failure of industry to comply with the HSA was first exposed by Gail Eisnitz in her landmark book, Slaughterhouse, in 1997. In April 2001 following its own investigation, The Washington Post ran a dramatic front-page series reporting that animals at slaughter plants across the country continued to be skinned, scalded and dismembered while still conscious. The GAO has confirmed that the plight of cattle, pigs, sheep and other animals continues unabated.
Basic Facts About Slaughter
More than 125 million cattle, sheep, hogs and other animals are slaughtered for human consumption at approximately 900 federally inspected slaughter plants across the country. Forty-nine of these plants, which are located principally in the Midwest, are responsible for slaughtering about 80% of the animals. The HSA, passed in 1958 and amended in 1979, requires that animals be humanely handled and rendered unconscious prior to being shackled, hoisted up on the production line, bled, skinned or scalded, and dismembered.* The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law and is supposed to stop the slaughter process when serious violations are observed and cannot continue until they are addressed. In some plants, more than 1,000 animals per hour are killed by individual workers, making the likelihood of violations almost certain; if FSIS inspectors stopped slaughter operations every time major violations were observed it would serve as a weighty enforcement tool because of the resulting financial losses to the plant.
Food Safety and Inspection Service:
Shoddy Enforcement and Shady Behavior
Following Gail's exposé, it has been clear that FSIS suffers from a lack of interest in enforcing the HSA; FSIS inspectors spend the majority of their time conducting meat inspection and HSA enforcement is a mere afterthought. The GAO confirmed the problem, citing ongoing and systemic problems with enforcement of the humane requirements by FSIS. Some inspectors have failed to document violations altogether while other inspection records indicate a failure to provide complete and consistent information regarding the scope and severity of violations that have been witnessed.
The GAO noted that FSIS had somehow "lost" at least 44 inspection records that document violations of the law, and there will be no effort to locate them—forever protecting the identity of the scofflaws.
Inspectors were more likely to stop the slaughter line when there was ineffective stunning of a single animal than when multiple animals were ineffectively stunned the GAO reported. And, the line was stopped in less than half of the cases of ineffective stunning of multiple animals. In addition, GAO reported that some inspectors failed to utilize their ability to suspend operations at a plant. Livestock being moved inside slaughter facility. FSIS, USDA
Following an impassioned oratory by Senator Robert Byrd (see Fall 2001 AWI Quarterly) FSIS was provided an additional million dollars by Congress to help it better enforce the law. The funds were used to hire 17 veterinarians who initially spent much of their time on other activities such as biosecurity and food safety. When this apparent misuse of the appropriation came to light FSIS shifted responsibilities so that 12 of the veterinarians are now dedicated to HSA enforcement.
Last year Congress, still deeply concerned about enforcement of the HSA, appropriated $5 million to FSIS to hire at least 50 inspectors "solely dedicated" to ensuring compliance with the law. However, it appears that FSIS has failed to hire any new inspectors, and instead merely reapportioned the funds.
In one of its boldest acts of transgression, FSIS provided a report to Congress on its enforcement of the HSA in March 2003 stating that its records indicate "very few infractions were for actual inhumane treatment of the animals (e.g. dragging or ineffective stunning)." FSIS suggested that the majority of violations were facility problems such as slippery floors and failure to provide water or food for animals. Following an analysis of FSIS' own records, the GAO concluded that by far, "the most prevalent noncompliance documented was the ineffective stunning of animals, in many cases resulting in a conscious animal reaching slaughter."
Increased pressure on FSIS over the past few years has led to an increase in the number of violations documented by inspectors, however, the vast majority of animals handled and slaughtered at plants are not observed by FSIS inspectors until after they have been processed into meat.
What Does the Future Hold?
GAO made a number of recommendations intended to improve FSIS enforcement, but unless there is a change in attitude from within, FSIS will continue finding ways not to get the job done. It is time for Congress to take stronger action against FSIS for its failure to do its job.
If FSIS were truly willing to enforce the law, the agency would have done as Congress and particularly Senator Byrd specifically requested and hired no fewer than 50 individual inspectors to serve as permanent fixtures in each of the largest slaughter plants to observe the handling, stunning and slaughter of animals for compliance with the law. All inspectors who spend time on HSA enforcement must receive adequate training about the law and, more importantly, must receive a strict mandate from the Secretary of Agriculture to take strong, immediate action against any violators of the HSA and to document properly the work that they are doing for all to see. This would be a modest step toward protecting the millions of animals who are killed for food from unnecessary suffering.