Washington, DC—Amid reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at the largest meat processors in the United States, a new analysis of government documents by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has found that, over a three-year span, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods had the worst animal welfare records among livestock slaughter plants. The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, SD, had the largest number of animal welfare violations for a single plant, while JBS USA had the highest total by far for any meat company in the United States.
AWI’s analysis focused on the number of humane handling incidents documented from 2016 through 2018, the most recent years for which data is available. Based on this metric, JBS, a Brazilian company that is the world’s largest meat producer and a majority owner of the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry brand, operates seven of the 10 worst large livestock slaughter plants in the country. In total, these seven JBS-owned plants had 132 incidents, including 18 violations classified as “egregious.” The violations included multiple incidents of failing to stun animals before shackling and hanging them to be dismembered, likely causing the animals excruciating pain. Rounding out the top 10 worst large plants was the Smithfield South Dakota plant (41 violations), a Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, IA (30 incidents), and a New Angus beef plant in Aberdeen, SD (21 incidents).
The three slaughter plants with the worst animal welfare records (the Smithfield South Dakota plant, the Tyson Iowa plant, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, MN) have all indefinitely suspended operations due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among plant workers.
“We are not at all surprised to see a correlation between worker welfare and animal welfare at slaughter plants,” said Dena Jones, AWI farm animal program director. “In our experience, plants that don’t treat animals well often don’t treat workers well. It’s a reflection of management placing profits over the well-being of the living resources that make those profits possible.”
AWI’s conclusions are summarized in a new report, “Humane Slaughter Update: Federal and State Oversight of the Welfare of Farm Animals at Slaughter.” The report examines the enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act by federal and state departments of agriculture at more than 2,700 plants across the country that slaughter cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. (Poultry, which represent the vast majority of the approximately 9.6 billion land animals killed for food each year, are covered in other AWI reports and excluded from this analysis). This is AWI’s fourth comprehensive report since 2008 on the enforcement of humane slaughter laws at US livestock slaughter plants.
Data was obtained through public records requests to federal and state agriculture departments and from records posted on the USDA website. The USDA routinely delays releasing public records—for months, if not years—which poses a real risk to public health and compromises the humane treatment of animals. In 2018, AWI and Farm Sanctuary sued the USDA to compel the department to proactively post slaughter plant records. The lawsuit is pending.
Other key findings in the report:
- Federal humane slaughter enforcement has remained relatively stable, while state enforcement continues to rise, but the level varies dramatically by state. For instance, nearly 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. Louisiana has provided no evidence that it has issued any noncompliance records for humane slaughter violations in nearly two decades.
- Repeat violators continue to present a major enforcement problem, though the USDA is taking stronger administrative actions, such as entering into consent orders with persistent violators, in the absence of criminal prosecution.
- Federal and state inspection personnel continue to demonstrate unfamiliarity with humane slaughter enforcement rules, as evidenced by their failure to take appropriate enforcement actions, particularly in response to egregious violations. Egregious inhumane treatment includes dragging injured animals to slaughter, running them over with equipment, and skinning them alive.
- Federal suspensions of slaughter plants have increased dramatically since 2008, following the largest beef recall in US history—spurred by video footage documenting workers at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in California abusing downed animals. Nevertheless, humane slaughter enforcement remains low in comparison to other aspects of food safety enforcement. Resources devoted to humane handling oversight at the federal level represent less than 3% of total funding for food safety inspections.
Among AWI’s recommendations:
- The USDA and state agriculture departments must significantly increase funding for humane handling and slaughter enforcement. The USDA should more closely monitor state enforcement programs to verify that they are complying with the law.
- To deter repeat violators, federal and state enforcement agencies must establish escalating penalties and, when necessary, pursue criminal animal cruelty charges.
- The USDA must revise federal humane slaughter regulations, which have not been updated since 1979, to address the most common noncompliance issues at plants (e.g., faulty animal stunning devices and inadequate worker training).
Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, [email protected]