May 15, 2004

 

 Evaluating humane slaughter - May 15, 2004

 
Evaluating humane slaughter
General Accounting Office critiques enforcement of humane slaughter act

This past January, the General Accounting Office released a report reviewing the Department of Agriculture's efforts to ensure compliance with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The report concluded that, although the USDA has addressed some problems, it still faces enforcement challenges, and the GAO made six recommendations to the agency.

The USDA says they have already made changes to address the GAO's concerns, and will continue to work toward improving enforcement efforts. "We have gotten much better as an agency in documenting what we have accomplished and much better at understanding our enforcement authorities," said Dr. Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

For its review, the GAO scrutinized records of noncompliance with humane handling and slaughter requirements between January 2001 and March 2003, as well as enforcement actions taken by FSIS inspectors and district managers. The analysis revealed 675 violations at 272 facilities, which represents approximately 30 percent of the slaughterhouses in the United States. The most prevalent type of noncompliance was ineffective stunning. Other reports dealt with poor facility conditions that could lead to animal injury, use of excessive force, and failure to provide water to animals awaiting slaughter.

The GAO analysts found that some inspection records were incomplete or inconsistent, making it difficult to determine the frequency and scope of violations. Gary McKee, PhD, former FSIS administrator, pointed out in a letter to the GAO that some records were missing because they were not electronically stored, but this is not an ongoing problem. In October 2001, the FSIS started recording noncompliance records in the performance-based inspections system, the computer-based system used to track compliance with the agency's other regulations.

Analysts also found that inspectors did not always document noncompliance with the required narrative report, which is supposed to be a concise description of the violation and any relevant evidence. Inconsistencies in addressing noncompliance also existed.

The GAO recommended that the FSIS record specific information on the type and causes of violations; establish additional clear, specific, and consistent criteria for districts to use when considering enforcement because of repetitive violations; and require that districts and inspectors clearly document the basis for enforcement involving repetitive violations.

Dr. Masters says that in November 2003, the agency issued two directives to inspector program personnel. The directives provide precise instructions explaining the requirements, verification activities, and enforcement actions required for ensuring humane handling and slaughter. She says those directives are already improving documentation and enforcement efforts. In 2003, the FSIS suspended operations at plants nine times, but in 2004, she was aware of four suspensions by March. Operations are suspended at plants when an animal is not properly stunned or a violation has a direct impact on an animal. "I believe the increase we have seen in 2004 is from this directive we put out in November," Dr. Masters said.

The three other recommendations were made after the GAO concluded that the food safety agency lacked detailed information on how much time its inspectors spend on humane handling and slaughter activities, making it difficult to determine whether the number of inspectors is adequate. The accounting office asked the FSIS to develop a mechanism for determining the effort inspectors devote to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act; develop criteria for determining the appropriate level of inspection resources needed; and assess whether that level is sufficient to effectively enforce the act.

FSIS officials say that, with the introduction of a district veterinary specialist at each of the agency's field offices, the current number of personnel devoted to humane handling and slaughter compliance is adequate. The agency hired 17 of those specialists to serve as program coordinators for all humane handling issues, and by March 2002, one was at work in each of its district offices to provide training to inspectors.

In January 2004, the FSIS launched the electronic animal disposition reporting system to report information about animals presented for slaughter, including each animal's disposition and the number slaughtered annually. This information was previously reported on paper. One component of this system is the humane activities tracking program, which will collect complete data on nine humane handling-related tasks.

Maria Cristina Gobin, assistant director of natural resources and environment at the GAO, says that normally, the GAO follows up with agencies six months after a report to see what remedial actions they have taken. At press time, only four months after release of the report, she had not followed up with the USDA and had not received documentation regarding the agency's changes, so she couldn't comment on the agency's efforts.

"They are open recommendations, until (FSIS) provides documentation to support what actions they have taken to (meet) those recommendations," Gobin said.

– Kate O'Rourke