USDA adds Regulations to Improve Humane Handling

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

By Jeffrey Hoffelt, Livestock Editor | agriview.com
Thursday, December 30, 2010 8:36 AM CST

Livestock harvesting has a long history of misconceptions.

Undercover videos and advocate groups feed into the misunderstandings by portraying the entire industry as the deviant activity caught on film.

Over the years, misconstrued coverage of meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses has broken into controversy. The individuals who ignore morally significant welfare standards give the entire industry a bad name. To minimize these misconceptions, government groups have struggled with rules and enforcement in the last half-century.

Techniques and technology have changed significantly during that time. The one thing that remains the same is that the process is a necessary step as beef, pork and mutton make their way to the dinner table.

Debate over harvesting methods has also continued. More than four decades ago, the controversy made its way into legislation with the help of large media mentions. In 1958, then-Senator Hubert Humphrey authored the first bill on the issue known as the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMLSA).

Public demand for the measure was so overpowering that when asked at a press conference whether he would sign it, President Dwight Eisenhower responded, “If I went by mail, I’d think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter.”

When passed by the U.S. Senate that year, the legislation focused heavily on how the animals were killed. Though the definition gives no mention to poultry, the wording of that document still serves as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations today:

“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:

(a) 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

(b) 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.”

Simply put, the act states that the slaughtering and handling of livestock must be carried out only by humane methods. Additional discussion has been viewed over the religious immunity to the rules, but the phrasing stands.

U.S. Legal defines the document, saying that humane methods of slaughter prevent needless suffering of the animal, and create safer and better working conditions for persons engaged in the slaughtering industry.

It also results in improvement of products and economies in slaughtering operations; and helps in bringing about an orderly flow of livestock and livestock products in interstate and foreign commerce, they add.

“The Act states that animals should be stunned into unconsciousness before their slaughter to ensure a quick and relatively painless death,” says the legal group.

The regulations looked feasible on paper, but in production practicality was not always followed through. To ensure that processing plants avoided animal cruelty, a 1978 update to HMSLA gave inspectors the authority to stop the slaughtering line when they saw cruelty. Equipment and employees were to be heavily managed by the 50 federal inspectors under the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Further enforcement was enabled in 2002 when George W. Bush signed that year’s Farm Bill into legislation. The document included stipulations that the act be fully enforced. Senator Peter Fitzgerald credited media scrutiny as a top reason for the changes.

“The Humane Slaughter Act simply requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain before they are harvested. However, apparently this law is not being enforced in some instances,” he said on the Senate floor, referencing allegations in an article from the Washington Post.

Concerns over downer cattle were also brought up at that time, but it wasn’t until 2004 that butchering non-ambulatory cattle was suggested by FSIS.

Since then, the regulations went fairly untouched until 2008.

Undercover footage of employees that year showed sick and injured cattle being abused at Westland/Hallmark Meat Company, a California packing plant. The surveillance resulted in one of the largest beef recalls in recent history and brought the subject back into the spotlight.

During the last two years, FSIS has implemented a number of measures to strengthen humane handling enforcement. On March 14, 2009, the USDA announced a final rule to amend Federal meat inspection regulations to require a complete ban on the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle for use in human food. FSIS also created 24 new humane handling enforcement positions, including 23 in-plant personnel and a headquarters-based Humane Handling Enforcement Coordinator.

Most recently, on October 14, 2010, FSIS issued draft guidelines to assist meat and poultry establishments that want to improve operations by using in-plant video monitoring.

USDA says they continue to respond to advocate allegations. Most recently, they issued a warning to veterinary inspectors to enforce down-cattle prohibitions. The direction, issued Dec. 22, tells the employees to ensure that cattle are euthanized when they are unable to stand.

Humane livestock harvesting was also the masthead of USDA’s twice annual regulatory agenda that was published in the Federal Register this week.

Under USDA’s direction, FSIS has worked to ensure that animal welfare is upheld in slaughterhouses. On Dec. 22, the group announced several measures that work towards that goal.

“Under this Administration, we have significantly strengthened our ability to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, but we have more work to do and must continue to look for ways that ensure the safe and humane slaughter of animals,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “That is why we are taking concrete steps to address outstanding humane handling issues, ranging from enhanced employee training to clearer guidance on existing rules.”

The Agency says it is pursuing the following new measures:

1. Issuing procedures to inspection personnel to clarify that all non-ambulatory mature cattle must be condemned and promptly euthanized to ensure they are humanely handled, regardless of the reason for the animal’s non-ambulatory status. The clarification is intended to ensure that the policy is consistently applied at all federally-inspected establishments by resolving any uncertainty on how inspectors should interpret existing rules.

2. Responding to and soliciting comments on petitions from the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary.

3. Appointing an ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety, designated specifically for humane handling issues. The ombudsman will provide FSIS employees a channel of communication to voice their concerns when the standard reporting mechanisms do not adequately address outstanding issues.

4. Requesting the USDA Office of Inspector General audit industry appeals of noncompliance records and other humane handling enforcement actions by FSIS inspection program personnel. This will help determine whether FSIS has adequately handled humane handling violations identified by inspection personnel and challenged by an establishment. The audit will give the Agency a better picture of how well the appeals process works, and if problems are found, FSIS will take action to address them.

FSIS also plans to deliver enhanced humane handling training to give inspection personnel more practical, situation-based training. The agency says that additional training modules that prepare inspectors for realistic scenarios they will face in the field will help the Agency enforce HMSA regulations more effectively and consistently.

The actions are an effort to assure the American public that all livestock are treated with care from their first to final breath, explains Al Almanza, FSIS administrator.

“When Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, they provided FSIS with the authority to prevent needless suffering, and we take our responsibility very seriously,” he says. “Consumers need to be confident our inspectors have the direction they need to ensure that humane slaughter is carried out properly.”

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