Westland/Hallmark: Humane slaughter act - Part 2 in our series

This is part two of an exclusive eight-part series taking an in-depth look into the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. situation from 2008. The objective of this series is to provide greater detail on what happened and when and why it happened as a result of leaked video footage. It is a story told by those directly involved in investigating the situation.

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.

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

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for enforcing 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:

"1. 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

"2. 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."

The most common methods of stunning in current use are the captive dead bolt for bovines, bison, sheep, goats and mules and carbon monoxide gas for swine. Poultry are often stunned using electricity or carbon monoxide, but HMSA does not apply to poultry.

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 slaughter plant is shut down.

Inspectors can return to their posts and slaughter and processing can resume only if corrective actions have been taken and amended policies are in place to prevent a recurrence.

There are three circumstances that allow/require FSIS inspectors to leave their posts, which then closes the plants. As explained, the first is if inhumane handling practices are observed in the pens and chutes. The second is if the inspector is threatened with bodily harm or actually attacked by plant personnel. 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, 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 Federal Meat Inspection Act to cover all federally inspected establishments that slaughter livestock. The 1978 act also required that all federally inspected slaughter establishments adopt humane handling and slaughtering methods.

HMSA still does not include fowl, such as turkeys and chickens. Legislation has been introduced, but no actions had been 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 HMSA, Congress provided no additional funds to augment FSIS inspection personnel to enforce the act, even though the act states that the plants are responsible for adopting humane handling methods and that FSIS is to enforce the act.

Subsequent to signing HMSA into law, FSIS did issue regulations and directives for inspection personnel regarding humane handling, such as unloading of livestock, use of prods, proper maintenance of chutes and pens and providing adequate water, among other things.

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

Of those 900 plants, 636 of them slaughtered 33.1 million cattle in 2006, not counting veal calves. With no additional funding for additional inspectors, 33 million head is a lot of cattle to observe for how well humane handling practices are being performed.

FSIS has around 750-800 public health veterinarians in its workforce. These are the men and women who do almost all of the antemortem inspections of cattle and other livestock, observing these animals both 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 veterinarians cannot continuously cover 900 plants that slaughter livestock, so in some establishments, other specially trained FSIS inspectors perform the task of antemortem inspection.

In addition to antemortem inspection in the holding pen area, the public health veterinarian and other specially trained inspectors examine each and every carcass, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Again, they simply cannot be in the pens and on the lines at the same time.

At Westland/Hallmark, a veterinarian was on duty and did perform the required tasks as a part of his workday.

One possible contributing factor to the actions at Westland/Hallmark — and, thus, what The Humane Society for the United States (HSUS) was able to tape — was the fact that the veterinarian at the plant had been there many years and was a creature of habit, with well-predicted times spent in the pens versus on the lines.

It has been said that the FSIS inspectors did not do their job to ensure humane handling at Westland/Hallmark and are to be blamed for the plant's failure. Over the three years prior to the release of the HSUS video footage, 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 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 the actions of Congress following the 1978 passage of HMSA.

In 2001, Congress directed USDA to spend no less than $1 million to enforce the act. That $1 million had to come out of the current USDA budget and was somehow supposed to enforce HMSA in 900 slaughter facilities. To comply, USDA hired 17 newly established district veterinary medical specialists to exclusively oversee humane handling enforcement.

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 personnel doing “full-time antemortem inspection” in 900 establishments.

Beginning in fiscal 2005, Congress provided $10 million over several years for FSIS to incorporate its “Humane Animal Tracking System” (HATS) into its field computer system. So, $5 million for personnel and $10 million for a computer software system. Perfect. Thank you, Congress. The geeks are happy, and the inspectors are still overburdened.

HATS revealed, after the video release, that the FSIS inspection workforce had performed humane handling activities at Westland/Hallmark approximately 1.5 hours per day. That took 90 minutes away from inspection activities and left 6.5 hours per day with no humane handling oversight.

In addition, 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” for “less than egregious” violations. FSIS is on record as taking humane handling very seriously.

I compare owning a slaughter facility to driving car down the interstate. Personnel are available to make certain the plant owners and the car drivers are following the laws, but they cannot be everywhere all of the time. Plant owners, like drivers, are expected to follow the laws, even when not being directly observed.

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