dairy cows

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Humane handling and food safety

FSIS does take humane handling seriously, but it takes food safety seriously too. Sometimes it is just impossible to do both at the same time.

Westland-Hallmark Meat Co.’s record setting recall of beef products in 2008 was initially triggered by an undercover video of egregious, nauseating, inhumane handling of spent, old dairy cows too feeble to ambulate to the knock box.

Many more undercover films have appeared to show this practice was not limited to cows or one company, and many retailers, including restaurants, are now demanding their suppliers meet certain animal husbandry guidelines to sell to them.

With all of the hubbub about animal handling, I thought I would pen this piece about how we got to where we are at today.

In response to public concerns, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. It was later amended in 1978 and is often referred to as the HMSA of 1978.

In 1958, when asked if he would sign the Act into law, President Eisenhower responded that “If I went by the volume of my mail, I would think no one was interested in anything BUT humane slaughter.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for enforcing the HMSA, which governs the humane handling and slaughter of livestock. Its key provision states:

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

  • In the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are 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: or
  • by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering

When the 1978 version of the Act was signed into law, FSIS was given the new legal authority to suspend inspection if inhumane handling was observed in the pens, chutes or knock boxes. By law, when inspection is suspended, the plant is shut down.

There are three circumstances that allow/require FSIS inspectors to leave their posts and close the plants by that action.

As explained, the first is for observation of inhumane handling practices in the pens and chutes.

The second is if the inspector is threatened with bodily harm, or actually attacked by plant personnel, and the third is for obvious grossly contaminated surfaces, filth and/or evidence of rodents or other animals inside the buildings.

According to a USDA fact sheet, in 2007, the year preceding the Westland/Hallmark closure, the FSIS had issued a total of 66 suspensions of inspection, 12 of which were for egregious inhumane handling of animals.

The 1958 law only covered plants that wanted to sell meat to the federal government. The 1978 law amended the HMSA to cover all federally inspected establishments that slaughter livestock.

HMSA does not include fowl, such as turkeys and chickens. Legislation has been introduced, but no actions taken as of this writing.

What many, even some in the industry, do not understand is that with the passage of the 1958 and the 1978 versions of the Acts, Congress provided no additional funds to augment the FSIS inspection personnel to enforce the act, even though the Act says the plants are responsible to have humane handling methods adopted and FSIS is to enforce the Act.

Subsequent to the signing of the Act into law, FSIS did issue regulations and directives for inspection personnel observation regarding the unloading of livestock, use of prods and proper maintenance of chutes and pens among other things.   

There are approximately 6,200 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants in the U.S. Of these, approximately 900 plants slaughter livestock and are subject to the HMSA.

Of the 900 plants that slaughter livestock, 636 slaughtered 33.1 million cattle in 2006, not counting veal calves. With no additional funding for additional inspectors, 33 million are a lot of cattle to observe how well humane handling practices are performed.

FSIS has around 750-800 public health veterinarians in their work force. These are the men and women who do almost all of the antemortem inspection of cattle and other livestock, observing them in motion and at rest. While in the holding pen area, they are also observing the handling of the animals, noting pen conditions, water availability, etc.

Obviously 800 DVMs cannot continuously cover 900 plants that slaughter livestock, so in some establishments other specially trained FSIS inspectors perform the task of antemortem inspection.

But in addition to antemortem inspection, the public health veterinarian and other specially trained inspectors are examining each and every carcass on the rails, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. They simply cannot be in the pens and on the lines at the same time.

It has been said the FSIS inspectors did not do their job to ensure humane handling at Westland/Hallmark and are to be blamed for its failure. The public health veterinarian and his fellow inspectors actually condemned 16,000 live cattle or carcasses, nearly 20 per day. These numbers represent approximately 4.6% of the 370,000 head of cattle presented to them in the three years immediately preceding the release of the videos.  They were doing their job.

They were doing their job to protect our health. True, they were not able to protect the animals from inhumane practices, but to find out why they were not able to do that, we need to revisit Congress’s actions following the 1978 passage of the HMSA.

In 2001, Congress directed USDA to spend not less than $1 million to enforce the Act. That $1 million, which had to come out of the then current USDA budget, was supposed to enforce the Act in 900 slaughter facilities? To comply, USDA hired 17 newly established district veterinary medical specialists to exclusively oversee enforcement of the HMSA.

In 2003, perhaps realizing the futility of the task at hand with the minimal fiscal support, Congress did appropriate an increase of $5 million to USDA for FSIS to hire “50 additional inspection personnel to work solely on HMSA enforcement through full-time antemortem inspection…”

 It is tough for me to imagine 50 additional inspectors doing “full-time antemortem inspection” in 900 establishments, but I am sure the Congress felt warm and fuzzy and looked concerned to their constituents who were growing tired of seeing the tapes of inhumane handling.

Beginning in FY 2005, Congress provided $10 million over several years for FSIS to incorporate its “Humane Animal Tracking System,” affectionately known as HATS at the agency, into its field computer system.

The response was typical government - instead of supplying the personnel necessary to do the job, create a computer program to measure what is being done.

HATS showed that FSIS had conducted more than 167,000 “humane handling verification activities” in livestock slaughter plants in 2007, suspended inspection 12 times for “ egregious inhumane handling violations”, and issued a total of nearly 700 “non-compliance reports” (NRs) for “less than egregious” violations.  

FSIS does take humane handling seriously, but it takes food safety seriously too. Sometimes it is just impossible to do both at the same time.

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