Not a lot of people know this, but in most cases it's actually illegal for cows and pigs to feel pain when they're slaughtered.
In 1958, Congress passed the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, which set slaughter requirements for all meat producers supplying the federal government. The similarly named Humane Methods of Slaughter Act 1978 (HMSA or Humane Slaughter Act) expanded the requirements to all federally inspected slaughter establishments; since slaughterhouses have to pass federal inspection to sell meat across state lines, that subjected almost all US meat production to humane slaughter regulation.
The Humane Slaughter Act specifically requires that cows and pigs be "rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut." There's an exception for kosher and/or halal slaughter, and a big exception for poultry, but most beef and pork slaughter is covered. And the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the Department of Agriculture has inspectors conducting regular audits meant to identify and curb abuse.
The problem? The US government has never really enforced these humane slaughter standards. There are inspectors, and they make note when they see horrifying cases of animal cruelty, but FSIS rarely issues more than a slap on the wrist to even egregious offenders. Now a group of animal rights organizations is trying to make them take the law seriously.
"The cow was lying in a large pool of blood"
The groups — the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion Over Killing, Farm Forward, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — submitted a 38-page petition to FSIS this past Tuesday, demanding better rules regulating animal slaughter. The petition documents numerous times that inspectors for FSIS willfully ignored federal law and allowed plant staffers to inflict severe pain on animals. The groups rely on previous investigations from the Government Accountability Office and the USDA's inspector general, as well as their own investigations (e.g., this one) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
In a number of cases, FSIS issued slaps on the wrist (like "noncompliance records" and "notices of intended enforcement") even after documenting that animals endured minutes-long, painful slaughters. Note that the descriptions come from FSIS inspectors who saw this happen, so they know exactly what's going on. Note also that FSIS inspectors have to announce their audits, so in many cases the abuses happened while plant operators knew the feds were watching.
- A pig at a Wells, Jenkins & Wells plant in North Carolina was shot through the head, enduring the pain for more than 90 seconds: "The animal had a hole in its forehead, was bleeding from the hole, and was circling around the stunning area."
- At CEO Natural in New York, after a pig was cut so as to bleed out, it "began to vocalize loudly and move about. The employee continued to hoist the pig and several more sticks were attempted, each resulting in additional loud vocalization from the animal … The pig ceased breathing and appeared dead about 1-2 minutes after the initial stick."
- At Swift in Colorado, an unspecified animal was shot six times over five minutes. The FSIS report noted that it "went wild after the first shot, circling its head, falling over, running into the fence and, at one point, charged toward the pen supervisor."
- At a JBS Souderton plant, a dairy cow, after being shot in the head, tried to stand and escape. It was shot again, but that wasn't enough to render it unconscious either.
FSIS isn't limited to slaps on the wrist. It actually has a great deal of power. It can suspend plants, barring them from producing meat until changes are made. It can withdraw the mark of inspection, rendering the plant's products unsalable. It can withdraw inspectors entirely, requiring the plant to reapply for inspections before entering the market again.
But when plants did receive suspensions, their conduct was generally so bad that they should've been shut down entirely:
- Gallo Meats in Washington had two suspensions over less than six weeks, but the plant still wasn't shut down. Here's one offense: "Mr. Gallo [shot] the hog behind the ear on the side of its head using a .357 magnum pistol. The hog dropped to its knees, and then stood back up. The hog was grunting and walked around the pen. Mr. Gallo then shot a second time with the .357 pistol again behind the ear and the hog again was walking around the pen grunting. Mr. Gallo then shot a third time still behind the ear on the side of the head and the hog still grunted and walked in the pen. The fourth shot with the .357 magnum pistol rendered the hog insensible."
- JBS Green Bay in Wisconsin got suspended but not shut down for this: "The cow was lying in a large pool of blood with its throat stuck/slit, that it was kicking excessively, breathing/gasping rhythmically, had normal movement of the stomach rising and falling, and had an intact palpebral reflex … The cow required two more captive bolt shots to render her unconscious."
FSIS can also refer violations for criminal enforcement, since violation of the Humane Slaughter Act has been a crime since 1978. But criminal provisions of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act have never been invoked against a USDA-inspected plant. And yet, the petition includes a number of accounts of slaughter plants whose conduct clearly merited criminal charges:
- An employee at Islamic Meat and Poultry in California "introduced an electric prod through the side of the chute and used it excessively in the animal‘s genital, rectal and tail area. He prodded the animal six to seven times using this electric prod. The animal vocalized loudly and became very agitated inside the chute each time," according to the FSIS report.
- A worker at Halal Meat in North Carolina "grabbed the tail of [a cow] and began bending the small end up until an audible pop was heard."
- A worker at Berry & Sons in Michigan picked up a 50-pound lamb and threw it onto the bed of a truck; it was observed flying in midair by spectators.
In total, the petition cites at least 32 cases of criminal-level animal treatment. None were prosecuted.
What is to be done?
The petition calls for five changes at FSIS:
- Require that FSIS at least issue noncompliance records for all violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
- Codify a definition of "egregious" violations, including dismembering conscious animals, running equipment over them, stunning animals but then allowing them to regain consciousness, etc.
- Require that FSIS suspend any plants found to have committed an egregious violation.
- Require all intentional cruelty, or especially egregious and reckless abuse of animals, be referred for criminal prosecution.
- Get serious about permanently withdrawing approval of plants that repeatedly violate the law, including a requirement that any plant with three or more egregious violations in a year have its grant of inspection withdrawn.
This is not exactly a radical agenda. It's not enacting new protection standards. It's not rendering meat economically unviable. It's just requiring that FSIS operate as though its animal welfare mandate matters.
"If they refuse to take any actions we ask them to take, we can sue them under the Administrative Procedures Act," Bruce Friedrich, director of policy at Farm Sanctuary, explains. The idea is to prove, in court, that the USDA is using an arbitrary interpretation of the law, enacting an arbitrary policy that goes against the intentions of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and, in the case of criminal prosecutions, effectively repealing the law in part, by completely neglecting an entire section of it.
Of course, it doesn't necessarily have to make it to that point. FSIS could agree to the regulatory changes voluntarily. "We have had probably half a dozen meetings with people in the FSIS enforcement office over the last few years," Friedrich explains. "They have expressed sympathy toward our arguments but we haven't seen changes." The petition could change that, though, because federal agencies are required to respond to every point in rulemaking petitions. FSIS will have to respond to each of the animal groups' proposals and either explain why it's unwilling to adopt them or respond that it's getting on board. "Once they are legally obligated to contend with the issues we're raising, our hope is that we'll actually see the five changes," Friedrich says.
In response to a request for comment, FSIS spokesperson Adam Tarr writes, "Ensuring the humane treatment of animals under our jurisdiction is a top FSIS priority. From fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2014, the number of meat and poultry establishments with a systematic approach to humane handling increased from just over 40 percent to 63 percent. A systematic approach to humane handling is a comprehensive plan designed to prevent mistreatment from occurring in the first place.
"FSIS will provide an official, public response to the petition after it has had the opportunity to fully review and consider it."