Custom- Exempt Slaughter: A License to Neglect and Abuse Farm Animals

Federal legislation known as the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act has been reintroduced in Congress. The PRIME Act would amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act to exempt from inspection the slaughter of animals and the processing of carcasses at custom-exempt facilities. Passage of this legislation would in effect allow the retail sale of uninspected meat, creating food safety risks and increased potential for inhumane treatment of animals.

photo by Mr.Samarn Plubkilang
photo by Mr.Samarn Plubkilang

The “exempt” in custom-exempt signifies that these operations are excused from continuous inspection, unlike operations subject to state and federal inspection, where government officials are on the premises whenever slaughter is being conducted. Custom-exempt plants serve hunters who want to process wild animal carcasses; they also slaughter cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats for anyone who wants meat for themselves, their household, or nonpaying guests. 

With custom-exempt slaughter, inspectors need not be present, and, in fact, inspection typically occurs only once or twice per year in the form of a “custom-exempt review.” While custom-exempt slaughterhouses are expected to comply with federal food safety regulations, inspectors are not routinely on the premises to ensure that they do so.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) revised its directive on custom-exempt slaughter in 2009 to clarify that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) applies at these facilities. The directive instructed FSIS personnel to assess several factors, including any egregious acts or repeated noncompliance with humane slaughter, to determine whether the custom-exempt facility being reviewed is handling livestock in a humane manner. 

In September 2020, the FSIS revised the custom-exempt directive to distinguish regulatory requirements from voluntary recommendations for humane slaughter. The only humane slaughter requirements identified are that (1) the animals must be effectively stunned to render them insensible to pain, (2) appropriate methods must be used when ritual slaughter is involved, and (3) conscious animals must not be dragged. Conversely, providing water and feed, maintaining the facility in good repair, handling animals without excitement and discomfort, and segregating disabled animals are identified merely as recommendations. 

AWI’s Survey

In 2020, AWI initiated research to determine whether applying the HMSA to custom-exempt slaughter has provided adequate protection to the animals killed at these establishments. We submitted Freedom of Information Act requests related to the USDA’s oversight of the custom-exempt process. This included requesting all custom-exempt review forms and a list of federal custom-exempt establishments. We also reviewed FSIS inspector memorandums issued to federally inspected slaughter plants that also perform custom-exempt slaughter. Finally, we submitted questions related to the custom-exempt review process to the FSIS through its “AskFSIS” web-based application. 

The Findings

  • Reviews of custom plants are not being conducted – The FSIS custom-exempt directive states that inspection personnel are to conduct reviews at custom-exempt establishments “generally at a frequency of once per year.” According to the FSIS, 285 federal custom-exempt establishments were operating in 2019–2020. However, only 27 (under 10%) of those plants appear to have been reviewed in that year. While the FSIS provided us with 144 custom establishment review forms for 2019, most of the reviews were conducted at state-level plants in states that do not operate a meat inspection program. It is unclear why so few federal custom-exempt plants were reviewed. 
  • Slaughter is not being observed at custom plants – Of the custom-exempt slaughter plants reviewed in 2019, FSIS inspectors documented observing the actual killing of animals at only 31 percent of them. Moreover, a significant number of reviews indicated the inspector was aware that slaughter would not even be conducted on the day of their visit. Given that the FSIS appears to be doing reviews infrequently—and when they do conduct a review, slaughter is often not observed—many years may pass before inhumane slaughter practices at a custom-exempt plant are uncovered. 
  • Federal plants use custom status to dodge violations – According to FSIS records, some plants that perform both federally inspected and custom-exempt slaughter are claiming that all animals on the premises are intended for custom slaughter until just before they are killed. Because inspectors lack the authority to take regulatory control actions (such as halting slaughter or rejecting a piece of equipment or area of the plant) in response to a violation involving a custom animal, these plants may be avoiding legal consequences for inhumanely handling animals during unloading or while they are kept in holding pens, a period that sometimes lasts weeks. 
  • Plants suspended from federal slaughter are allowed to operate as custom – Because enforcement actions are not taken at custom-exempt plants, these establishments may continue to hold and slaughter animals even if federal inspection has been suspended or withdrawn. For example, the FSIS took legal action in 2019 to permanently withdraw federal inspection from Harmon Brothers Meat in Warsaw, Kentucky, after the plant was suspended from performing federal slaughter on four different dates following egregious humane slaughter violations. In addition, according to AWI’s records, Harmon Brothers Meat was cited for more humane slaughter violations (34) in 2016–2018 than any other livestock slaughter plant classified as “very small.” Despite this atrocious record, the plant was allowed to continue killing animals for custom-exempt slaughter.
  • Animal neglect and abuse is occurring at custom plants – The records AWI reviewed suggest that animals destined for custom-exempt slaughter are being beaten, held in deplorable conditions, and deprived of food and water for extended periods. In some cases, the animals are dying as a result (see examples on next page). Current FSIS policy allows for this mistreatment, because not beating and not starving animals are considered mere recommendations. 

Conclusion

AWI is unfortunately accustomed to witnessing and uncovering many forms of animal abuse, and the treatment of custom-slaughtered farm animals surely ranks among the worst. Information obtained from the USDA suggests that its purported application of the federal humane slaughter law has had little or no effect on the welfare of farm animals fated for custom-exempt slaughter. Changes are needed in the government’s approach to this type of slaughter, and AWI soon will be offering several recommendations to improve the treatment of animals at these establishments. 

Below are examples of USDA inspector memorandums illustrating that custom-exempt animals are afforded a lower level of care—and less legal protection—than animals designated for federally inspected slaughter. 

Lack of Water
A holding pen with lambs too numerous to count was observed without adequate water; the water trough contained 3 inches of dark brown, manure-contaminated liquid. Two dead lambs were found with their bodies decomposing, and a strong ammonia smell emanated from the pen. A dead goat and a dead pig were found in other pens. The inspector noted that the outside temperature was 90 degrees, with no functioning fans in the pens, and that the Livestock Heat Index was estimated to be in the “danger” to “emergency” category. The inspector also observed that the situation involved custom-exempt animals.
—Spencer County Butcher Block (M44779), Taylorsville, KY, 7/7/2020

Unsanitary Conditions in Holding Pens
A holding pen with goats and lambs contained a dead goat and water of questionable drinking quality; the water was brown with fecal material present. Another dead goat was observed outside a storage room. An adjacent holding pen with goats and lambs was densely populated; most of the floor was covered in liquid feces, and the water was of even more questionable drinking quality. The inspector noted that the establishment was suspended from federal slaughter due to an egregious violation but was still allowed to perform custom-exempt slaughter. 
—Harmon Brothers Meat (M7356), Warsaw, KY, 4/26/2019

A large boar was observed without access to water in a holding pen. Another pen of lambs and sheep was observed with feces covering the floor. Bedding was minimal and mostly wet. Urine was also observed in one area of the pen, and the fur of most of the animals was contaminated with fecal matter. One lamb was observed in a moribund state. One small automatic waterer was functional but insufficient for the volume of animals (too numerous to count) in the pen.
—Faulkner Meats (M44779), Taylorsville, KY, 5/22/2019

Safety Hazards
Hogs designated for custom slaughter were observed in a holding pen that had a broken metal divider with exposed bolts and sharp edges, presenting a risk of injury to the pigs. A worker refused the inspector’s suggestion to move the animals to another pen. The inspector explained: “I did not take regulatory control action due to the fact the current animals in the holding pen were custom exempt. In the future, if federally inspected animals were in a pen with broken railing it would be a violation.”
—Mountain Meat Packing Inc (M4979), Fruita, CO, 6/24/2020

Inadequate Care of Sick and Disabled Animals
A holding pen of pigs who had been in the barn since the previous week had a soupy manure–covered floor, a small quantity of questionable quality drinking water, and one pig who appeared to have an orbital wound from the loss of an eye. A holding pen of sheep who had been in the barn for a week or more had several disabled animals among the normal population. Some were observed crippled to the point of being barely able to rise and walk. The inspector noted, “The animals observed today had not been declared for federal inspection.”
—Harmon Brothers Meat (M7356), Warsaw, KY, 7/10/2018

Excessive Force Used to Move Animals 
An establishment employee was observed striking a steer in the face with a broom and kicking the animal in the rear to force him to turn around. An inspector inquired if the animal was declared for federal inspection or custom-exempt slaughter. Establishment personnel stated custom-exempt slaughter. The same worker previously observed striking and kicking the steer was seen with a water hose running at full stream, first spraying the animal’s hindquarters and then his face.
—Faulkner Meats (M44779), Taylorsville, KY, 9/20/2019

Inaccurate Stunning
An inspector observed a large hog being shot five times with a firearm before the animal was rendered unconscious for slaughter. After each unsuccessful attempt, the worker left the stunning area to retrieve another cartridge from a nearby vehicle. The worker commented to the inspector: “It’s custom, guy. No need to worry about it!”
—Sanchez Slaughterhouse (M12455), Kauai, HI, 2/24/2020

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