AWI sues USDA over slaughter act
On December 14, 2016, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The animal welfare organization took the USDA to court over what AWI is calling an unreasonable delay in responding to an AWI petition, which was filed May 2013. The petition urges USDA to amend the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which was published into law in 1978.
“The HMSA hasn’t been amended since the initial regulations were written, so we are looking at close to 40 years of the same regulations,” said Dena Jones, AWI farm animal program director. “We have more access to information now, which helps us identify areas that could be improved in animal slaughter and what changes could be made.”
The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMSA) of 1978 made it mandatory to humanely handle and slaughter livestock in USDA inspected establishments. This includes cattle, calves, mules, sheep, goats, swine, and other livestock.
According to a USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) spokesperson, “From this Act, two methods of slaughter were determined to be humane. The first method requires that livestock are rendered insensible to pain, the first time the stunning device is used, and before being shackled, hoisted, cast, or cut. This means that the animal must be unconscious and unable to feel pain before it is ‘stuck’ (veins and arteries severed so it bleeds out), shackled and hoisted into the air, or before it is dropped onto a table/floor.
“The second method is in accordance with a method called ritual slaughter. This method adheres to the ritual requirements of any religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter where 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. In ritual slaughter, the animal’s throat is cut deep enough from side to side with a sharp knife, so that major arteries and veins are severed. Examples of ritual slaughter include Jewish (Kosher) slaughter and Islamic (Halal) slaughter.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, AWI was able to evaluate a sample of more than 1,000 animal slaughter incidents from 2013, and Jones said they were then able to identify the most frequent causes of inhumane incidents, which are not addressed by current regulations. These include — lack of worker training in humane handling techniques, use of inappropriate stunning devices, improper shot placement, often in connection with inadequate restraint, lack of routine testing and maintenance of stunning equipment, and lack of backup stunning devices.
“Half of the incidents could be addressed if the USDA makes minor changes to the HMSA,” said Jones. “We petitioned USDA in 2013 to make those changes, and we did receive a letter acknowledging the receipt of the petition and that’s been it. The USDA, just like any government agency, is supposed to consider rule-making petitions from citizens. The law isn’t specific as to how long they can take to give a response, but generally once you hit the three or four year mark, most courts would agree that it’s an undue long delay.”
At this point, AWI is asking the court to establish that this is an unreasonable amount of time and determine a timeframe that USDA needs to respond back on the petition. AWI is represented by the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at The George Washington University Law School.
The petition requests USDA “amend the HMSA regulations to address the lack of the identified causes of humane slaughter.”
“The majority of establishments, particularly the large plants, already do what’s in our petition because they are already part of American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines,” said Jones. “None of our requests are out of line. We just hope to avoid and prevent some of the incidents that cause unnecessary animal suffering, and we urge the USDA to make these changes.”
Under the Humane Slaughter of Livestock, USDA enforces a detailed list practiced in every federally-inspected plant. Examples include driving livestock with minimum excitement, avoiding excessive use of a electric prods, separating disabled animals from normal ambulatory animals, just to name a few. USDA also prohibits the use of pipes, sharp or pointed objects, dragging of disabled animals or slaughtering an animal before its been rendered unconscious by stunning.
The USDA FSIS spokesperson said, “FSIS assigns a Public Health Veterinarian (PHV) to every FSIS-inspected livestock slaughter establishment. PHVs and other inspection program personnel in these plants observe the daily handling and slaughter of all cattle, sheep, swine, goats, or other species that FSIS regulates; ensuring plants take corrective action where needed and taking enforcement action in response to instances of inhumane treatment. FSIS in-plant personnel take necessary regulatory action, up to and including suspension of slaughter operations, if they see any inhumane treatment of animals at livestock slaughter establishments.”
According to USDA’s annual slaughter summary, there are more than 700 plants in the U.S. with 28 million cattle and 115 million hogs slaughtered in 2015.
“There are about 100 suspensions due to egregious offenses that result in animal suffering each year,” said Jones. “In the last six months, we’ve noted several egregious circumstances that were spot on to our petition. Three of these egregious humane handling violations were when the slaughter plant didn’t have a backup slaughter device. We believe having a second device on hand is a reasonable, mainstream, widely recognized practice that should be required when slaughtering animals.”
Policy doesn’t allow for any particular USDA employee to comment on an ongoing lawsuit. Pending the court’s decision, the USDA should be providing a response to AWI’s petition within the next 60 days, said Jones.
“Prudence dictates that commercial slaughter establishments should not be allowed to slaughter animals unless they possess a humane handling plan, trained employees, and properly functioning equipment,” said Jones. “The USDA is well aware that these requirements are completely reasonable and would prevent a tremendous amount of animal suffering.”
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