USDA encourages improvements in animal welfare at slaughterhouses
The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has published a notice in the Federal Register encouraging slaughterhouses to use a systematic approach to ensure that they are meeting the requirements of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act passed in 1978. The notice is a response to pressure from the public, Congress, and a 2004 report from the General Accounting Office that was critical of slaughter practices and USDA enforcement of the act, which requires establishments to adopt humane handling and slaughter methods.
The current state
The FSIS says it has received over 20,000 letters from the public—individuals, consumer organizations, and animal welfare organizations—over the past few years expressing concerns about the treatment of livestock.
A report by the General Accounting Office released this past January also found that the number of humane handling noncompliance incidents documented by the FSIS in establishments increased from January 2001 through March 2003 (see JAVMA, May 15, 2004, page 1568). To be compliant with the HMSA, facilities must, for example, design holding pens, driveways, and ramps to prevent injury to livestock; use electrical prods as little as possible; and effectively stun an animal on the first attempt.
The FSIS attributes the increase, in part, to the improved documentation of noncompliance by FSIS personnel who routinely do inspections to evaluate whether facilities are meeting requirements. In 2001, for example, the agency hired district veterinary medical specialists to serve as the primary contact for humane handling and slaughter issues in each district. In 2003, the agency started providing FSIS inspection personnel with additional information on humane handling verification procedures and clarification about enforcement actions to be taken for violations. In early 2004, the FSIS implemented the humane activities tracking program, which collects data on nine humane handling-related tasks.
According to the USDA, it is impossible to know whether the number of incidents has actually increased. The USDA can tally the number of noncompliance incidents, but without knowing how much time inspectors spend on humane-related enforcement activities, the agency can't tell whether the number of incidents is going up or inspectors are just spending more time monitoring compliance with HMSA than they have in the past. The USDA does not analyze the amount of time an inspector spends on HMSA-related activities versus food safety activities. Inspectors from the FSIS are stationed at each federally inspected slaughter facility to examine every carcass to ensure food safety as well as monitor compliance with the HMSA.
"The USDA is committed to strong enforcement of the HMSA and is gathering data to learn what percentage of each day an inspector devotes to HMSA-related enforcement activities," said Steven Cohen, a spokesperson for the USDA. "This information will lead to better utilization of resources to improve both enforcement of HMSA and food safety-related regulations."
With the publication of the recent notice, the USDA is recommending that plants conduct internal audits, on a periodic basis, to ensure that best practices are used. The agency is recommending a four-pronged approach.
First, slaughterhouses should conduct an initial assessment of where and under what circumstances animals may experience excitement, discomfort, or accidental injury while being handled in connection with slaughter. Except for establishments conducting ritual slaughter, they should also assess where and under what circumstances stunning problems may occur. Second, they should keep those things in mind when designing facilities and implementing practices. Third, slaughterhouses should periodically evaluate their handling methods and ensure that their stunning methods render all livestock insensible to pain by a single blow. Fourth, plants should improve handling practices and modify facilities, when necessary.
Many of the bigger slaughterhouses are already conducting regular internal audits, some on a weekly basis. In 1999, McDonald's Corp. began auditing its meatpacking plants, using the American Meat Institute scoring system.
"McDonald's buys from 90 percent of the whole, entire beef industry," said Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who developed the AMI scoring system. Other companies, including Wendy's and Burger King, soon followed suit.
The AMI scoring system measures welfare by objectively scoring five critical control points during slaughter. To be deemed acceptable, a plant must be able to stun at least 95 percent of the animals on the first attempt, move 75 percent without using an electric prod, and have no more than 3 percent of the animals mooing or bellowing. Only 1 percent can fall down during the process, and less than 1 percent can be sensible on the bleed rail.
"It's really important to put numbers on it," Dr. Grandin said. "If you don't put numbers on it, things can slip back into bad practices and they don't even realize it. You have to constantly keep on top of it to keep it good."
Dr. Grandin says that the large plants she works with are meeting the AMI minimum standards or doing even better. She is pleased that the USDA has issued the notice encouraging all plants to systematically evaluate their performance, but says the notice is "rather vague."
"One of the problems you have with the USDA is that they cannot officially endorse numerical scoring because when you do numerical scoring, you allow a plant to make a few mistakes—you say we are going to accept the fact that stunning is not perfect," Dr. Grandin said. The way the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is written, however, does not allow for any mistakes.
Dr. Grandin says this is impractical. "Perfection is not possible. Very high standards are possible. This is something that political people in Washington, D.C., who don't have any practical experience ... they just don't understand that."
In the past two years, many small plants have begun to use the AMI scoring. "The small plants are coming on board. It's kind of like 1999 for the small plants. Now they are getting their standards up. They'll get as good as the big plants," Dr. Grandin said.
Many of these smaller plants sell organic foods to local grocers and stores selling primarily organic foods. "The people who are selling organic are now insisting plants get audited," Dr. Grandin said.
The USDA hopes all plants get on board. "We are encouraging everyone to do it," said Lynn Dickey, PhD, director of regulations and petitions policy staff in the Office of Policy, Program, and Employee Development at the FSIS.
To read USDA's notice, visit www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/04-013N.htm.