Every hour, some 1,000,000 chickens, 14,000 pigs, and 4,000 cows are slaughtered for human consumption in the United States. It is a process that takes place far from public view, and one that few know very much about.
In the past, revelations about cruelty to animals during the slaughtering process resulted in actions by Congress to improve enforcement of the federal law created to protect animals at slaughter—primarily the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). Despite congressional action, however, enforcement of the HMSA by the US Department of Agriculture remains lacking.
The Animal Welfare Institute worked diligently for passage of the original law in 1958 and for an amendment that provided for enforcement in 1979. The HMSA requires humane handling before slaughter, as well as the rendering of animals insensible to pain (a process referred to as “stunning”) prior to being shackled, hoisted, or cut.
The HMSA applies to the roughly 166 million livestock killed each year at approximately 800 federally inspected slaughter plants, and to a much smaller number of animals killed at approximately 1,900 state-inspected plants.
Shamefully, the HMSA does not protect the approximately 9.5 billion chickens, 208 million turkeys, and 26.6 million ducks slaughtered each year in the United States, nor does it apply to animals killed on the farm.
Find more about common humane slaughter violations and which plants are the worst offenders.
Read AWI's petitions to the USDA on humane slaughter enforcement:
- 2023 Petition to Require Video Cameras in CO2 Gas Slaughter Systems
- 2010 Petition on Humane slaughter enforcement and violations
- 2013 Petition
- Exhibits to 2013 Petition
- 2013 Poultry Slaughter Petition
Slaughter plants that violate the humane slaughter law may face one or more enforcement actions, including suspension of plant operations. AWI has issued a report on humane slaughter enforcement, and the organization maintains a listing of federal slaughterhouses that have been suspended due to violations of the humane slaughter law.*
What constitutes a humane slaughter violation?
- Driving animals off trucks and down ramps using excessive force or discomfort
- Failure to move any animal unable to walk off the truck on suitable equipment or to stun the animal before he or she is moved
- Dragging a conscious animal
- Failure to separate disabled animals from ambulatory animals and/or to place them in a covered pen
- Failure to provide animals with access to water, access to feed if held over 24 hours, and sufficient room to lie down if held overnight
- Excessive use of electric prods to move animals
- Failure to maintain facilities and equipment in good repair to prevent injury or pain to the animals
- Making more than one attempt to render an animal unconscious by stunning and/or causing excitement or discomfort during stunning
- Shackling, hoisting, or cutting still-conscious animals
For a description of how the USDA oversees the treatment of birds, see AWI’s report on poultry slaughter in the United States.
*Contact Dena Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org), AWI Farmed Animal Program Director, to receive assistance in obtaining livestock and/or poultry slaughter plant enforcement documents.