The Humane Society of the United States Commends USDA Plans to Improve Humane Handling at Slaughter Plants

The Humane Society of the United States applauds the U.S. Department of Agriculture for moving forward on several measures intended to improve oversight of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

“USDA is taking important steps to promote more humane handling of animals at slaughter plants,” said HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle. “We commend Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, and their full team for recognizing the seriousness of these concerns and being proactive to address them. The establishment of an ombudsman should help protect whistleblowers and others seeking to ensure industry compliance with the laws. We hope the agency will act quickly to expand the downer ban on adult cattle, to include calves. And we continue to hope that USDA will act in the future to encourage a transition to Controlled Atmosphere Stunning methods for the slaughter of poultry, which could reduce the suffering of billions of animals each year.”

Specifically, the agency announced today that it will:

  • Appoint an Ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety to focus on humane handling issues and provide Food Safety and Inspection Service employees an avenue to raise their concerns. This idea was originally proposed by the late Dr. Dean Wyatt, a dedicated federal veterinarian and whistleblower who worked for nearly two decades at FSIS overseeing slaughter practices in the meat industry before his tragic death last month from a brain tumor. Dr. Wyatt testified in March (before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform) about animal abuses he’d witnessed, and resistance and retribution from his USDA superiors when he tried to report and stop violations of the humane slaughter law. More than 50,000 individuals wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack last November urging that an ombudsman be established, to help ensure that inspectors can carry out their responsibilities without undue interference from “higher ups” in the agency.
  • Publish a Federal Register Notice responding to, and seeking public comments on, petitions submitted to USDA by HSUS and by Farm Sanctuary regarding the slaughter of “downed” animals – those unable to stand and walk unassisted. The HSUS petition calls on the agency to close a loophole in current policy that allows the slaughter of downed calves. This petition was prompted by an HSUS undercover investigation of the Bushway Packing plant in Vermont, which revealed rampant cruelty to infant calves, some just days old with their umbilical cords still attached, including repeated electric shocks, kicking, skinning alive, cutting off a hoof, and partial decapitation. Following that investigation, more than 50,000 individuals also urged Secretary Vilsack to close the downer calf loophole. Farm Sanctuary’s petition calls on the agency to extend the ban on slaughter of downed cattle to cover other species, a reform that HSUS has also sought for years.
  • Issue procedures to clarify that inspection personnel must condemn and promptly euthanize all downed adult cattle, regardless of why each such animal is unable to stand and walk.  Although USDA announced in March 2009 its ban on the slaughter for food of any downed adult cattle, that policy has not been consistently applied, as some inspectors have continued to allow some downed cattle to be set aside for subsequent observation. The new procedures will ensure uniform enforcement across the country of the requirement for immediate humane euthanasia of all downed adult cattle.
  • Have the USDA Office of Inspector General conduct audits of the appeals process to assess how well the system works when FSIS inspectors report violations and their reports are appealed by industry, and to make recommendations for any needed changes. This speaks to concerns identified by Dr. Wyatt regarding noncompliance reports by field staff being rewritten or overturned by agency supervisors from a distance, based on claims by slaughter plant management.
  • Utilize new training tools to help inspection personnel better recognize and address potential humane handling issues in a consistent and effective way. FSIS will develop enhanced training modules with realistic scenarios that inspectors will face in the field. We hope these will emphasize the responsibility that inspectors have for overseeing humane handling from the time that animals arrive and are offloaded from trucks until they are slaughtered.

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