AWI Report: Humane Slaughter Enforcement up, but Serious Problems Remain

In 1996, animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin conducted an audit of 24 federal slaughter plants for the US Department of Agriculture. She found that only 30 percent of the plants were able to effectively render cattle insensible to pain with one stunning shot, as required by the federal humane slaughter law. In the late 1990s, as part of its transition to a new food safety monitoring program known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, the USDA eliminated its procedural code for tracking humane slaughter violations. Consequently, the number of times plants were temporarily shut down for inhumane slaughter incidents dropped to nearly zero.

The Washington Post published a slaughterhouse exposé in April 2001, prompted by an undercover investigation of a major cattle slaughter plant in Washington state by the Humane Farming Association. The investigation suggested that inadequately stunned and still-conscious animals were routinely being dismembered. In response, Congress passed a resolution expressing that the USDA should fully enforce the federal humane slaughter law; enforcement increased slightly as a result.

In early 2008, another slaughterhouse investigation by animal advocates revealed multiple incidents of egregious cruelty to nonambulatory cattle at the Westland-Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, California, resulting in widespread public outrage and the largest beef recall in US history. Congress held multiple oversight hearings in the aftermath, and the USDA took several actions to step up its enforcement of the humane slaughter law.

In addition to its decades of work with Congress to achieve humane slaughter, AWI has conducted several surveys of federal and state enforcement of humane slaughter laws. In 2008, AWI published Crimes Without Consequences, a report that documented very low levels of humane slaughter enforcement, particularly at state-inspected plants, for the period 2002 to 2004. Humane Slaughter Update: Comparing State and Federal Enforcement of Humane Slaughter Laws, published in 2010, found that both federal and state humane slaughter enforcement increased dramatically following the Westland-Hallmark investigation.

AWI has published a new report, Humane Slaughter Update: Federal and State Oversight of the Welfare of Farm Animals at Slaughter, which looks at enforcement for the six-year period, 2010 through 2015. (The report does not cover the slaughter of poultry, which was addressed by another AWI report: The Welfare of Birds at Slaughter, published in April 2016.) Major findings of the most recent humane slaughter report include the following:

Federal and state humane slaughter enforcement continues to rise, particularly in terms of the number of plant suspensions and threatened suspensions for egregious violations of the humane slaughter law. During the Obama administration, the number of plant suspensions and threatened suspensions increased roughly tenfold from the previous level (see figure at right). In addition, the number of citations for less serious offenses continues to increase under state enforcement.

Although state enforcement is up overall, the level of enforcement varies dramatically by state. For example, half of the states operating meat inspection programs have issued no plant suspensions for humane slaughter violations since at least 2002, when AWI began monitoring state enforcement. States receiving the highest rating from AWI on humane enforcement were Maine, North Carolina, and South Carolina, while Indiana, Montana, and Utah were rated the lowest. One state—Louisiana—provided no evidence that it has taken any enforcement actions for humane slaughter violations since at least 2002.

Repeat federal and state violators present a major enforcement problem. These are cases where individual slaughter plants are cited for multiple violations in a relatively short period of time. Numerous examples of repeat violators were found, including a federal plant with five suspensions and 34 noncompliance records for inhumane slaughter within one year, and a state plant with one suspension and 13 noncompliance records within one year.

Federal and state inspection personnel continue to demonstrate unfamiliarity with humane slaughter enforcement by their failure to take appropriate enforcement actions. State inspection programs issue fewer suspensions and threatened suspensions compared to the number of less serious actions that they take for inhumane slaughter incidents. The lower suspension rate for state programs indicates that state inspectors either witness less serious offenses, generally, or they impose a lower penalty than what is called for. From reviewing state enforcement records, AWI has determined that the latter is true: State inspection programs take inadequate enforcement actions more frequently than the federal inspection program.

While humane slaughter enforcement was up at both the federal and state levels, it remains low in comparison with other aspects of food safety enforcement. For example, between 2010 and 2015, only 2.4 percent of all federal food safety verification procedures were conducted for humane handling and/or slaughter. Moreover, less than 1 percent of all food safety citations were issued for humane handling violations. Resources devoted to humane handling at the federal level continue to constitute only 2.0 to 2.5 percent of total funding for food safety inspection.

Based on its continued research into humane slaughter enforcement, AWI has offered the following recommendations to federal and state meat inspection programs: 1) The allocation of federal and state resources to humane handling oversight efforts should be increased. 2) The USDA should more closely monitor state programs to ensure that their enforcement actions are consistent with federal directives. 3) The USDA should remove meat inspection accreditation from the state of Louisiana. 4) The USDA should establish escalating penalties for repeat violators. 5) Federal and state agencies should cooperate in the pursuit of criminal animal cruelty charges for incidents of willful animal abuse. 6) The USDA should make more enforcement records available to the public on its website. 7) The USDA should revise the federal humane slaughter regulations to address the most common causes of violations.

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