Humane Methods of Slaughter Act:

Actions Are Needed to Strengthen Enforcement

GAO-10-203: Published: Feb 19, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 2010.

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Concerns about the humane handling and slaughter of livestock have grown; for example, a 2009 video showed employees at a Vermont slaughter plant skinning and decapitating conscious 1-week old veal calves. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, as amended (HMSA) prohibits the inhumane treatment of livestock in connection with slaughter and requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain before being slaughtered. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for HMSA. GAO was asked to (1) evaluate FSIS's efforts to enforce HMSA, (2) identify the extent to which FSIS tracks recent trends in resources for HMSA enforcement, and (3) evaluate FSIS's efforts to develop a strategy to guide HMSA enforcement. Among other things, GAO received survey responses from inspectors at 235 plants and examined a sample of FSIS noncompliance reports and suspension data for fiscal years 2005 through 2009.

GAO's survey results and analysis of FSIS data suggest that inspectors have not taken consistent actions to enforce HMSA. Survey results indicate differences in the enforcement actions that inspectors would take when faced with a humane handling violation, such as when an animal was not rendered insensible through an acceptable stunning procedure by forcefully striking the animal on the forehead with a bolt gun or properly placing electrical shocks. Specifically, 23 percent of inspectors reported they would suspend operations for multiple unsuccessful stuns with a captive bolt gun whereas 27 percent reported that they would submit a noncompliance report. GAO's review of noncompliance reports also identified incidents in which inspectors did not suspend plant operations or take regulatory actions when they appeared warranted. The lack of consistency in enforcement may be due in part to the lack of clarity in current FSIS guidance and inadequate training. The guidance does not clearly indicate when certain enforcement actions should be taken for an egregious act--one that is cruel to animals or a condition that is ignored and leads to the harming of animals. A noted humane handling expert has stated that FSIS inspectors need clear directives to improve consistency of HMSA enforcement. According to GAO's survey, FSIS's training may be insufficient. For example, inspectors at half of the plants did not correctly answer basic facts about signs of sensibility. Some private sector companies use additional tools to assess humane handling and improve performance. FSIS cannot fully identify trends in its inspection funding and staffing for HMSA, in part because it cannot track HMSA inspection funds separately from the inspection funds spent on food safety activities. FSIS also does not have a current workforce planning strategy for allocating limited staff to inspection activities, including HMSA enforcement. FSIS has strategic, operational, and performance plans for its inspection activities but does not clearly outline goals, needed resources, time frames, or performance metrics and does not have a comprehensive strategy to guide HMSA enforcement.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities, and to ensure that FSIS strengthens its enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, as amended, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to strengthen the analysis of humane handling data by analyzing the narrative in noncompliance reports to identify areas that need improvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSIS strengthened the analysis of humane handling data by analyzing the narrative in noncompliance reports to identify areas that need improvement. Specifically, a workgroup comprised of three District Veterinary Medical Specialists from three regions of the country reviewed 25 percent of all 2010 humane handling noncompliance records. The results of their analysis identified areas related to these records that needed improvement. For example, 4.9 percent of these records were poorly written to the extent that a plant could more easily appeal the action; 27 percent were identified as missing necessary detail, such as time, location, or a clear description of the event; 1.4 percent described an event that was compliant rather than noncompliant with the regulations; and 9 percent indicated that a stronger Regulatory Control Action (to include a suspension) was warranted but not taken.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities, and to ensure that FSIS strengthens its enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, as amended, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to identify some type of objective tool, such as a numerical scoring mechanism, and instruct all inspectors-in-charge at plants to use this measure to assist them in evaluating the plants' HMSA performance and determining what, if any, enforcement actions are warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: USDA's Inspectors-in-Charge are not using any objective tools to determine what enforcement actions are warranted. In 2010, USDA's 15 District Veterinary Medical Specialists did begin to use objective scoring, developed by Temple Grandin, to provide an objective measurement to assist in determining the establishment's handling process, but not to help determine what enforcement actions are warranted under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities, and to ensure that FSIS strengthens its enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, as amended, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to establish clear and specific criteria for when inspectors-in-charge should suspend plant operations for an egregious HMSA violation and when they should take enforcement actions because of repeat violations

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Food Safety Inspection Service has revised FSIS Directive 6900.2, Humane Handling and Slaughter of Livestock, but the revision does not provide clear or specific criteria for when inspectors-in-charge should suspend plant operations and when they should take enforcement actions because of repeat violations.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the agency's oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities, and to ensure that FSIS can demonstrate how efficiently and effectively it is enforcing HMSA, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to develop an integrated strategy that clearly defines goals, identifies resources needed, and establishes time frames and performance metrics specifically for enforcing HMSA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: FSIS's 2011-1016 Strategic Plan identifies a strategy with one outcome, measure, and performance target related to humane handling. However, FSIS has not yet identified resource needs related to humane handling. FSIS officials said they are considering identifying resource needs in the future.

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