Humane Methods of Slaughter Act:

Weaknesses in USDA Enforcement

GAO-10-487T: Published: Mar 4, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 2010.

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This testimony discusses our work on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) actions to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978 (HMSA), as amended, which prohibits the inhumane treatment of livestock in slaughter plants and generally requires that animals be rendered insensible--that is, unable to feel pain--before being slaughtered. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for enforcing HMSA. Concerns about the humane handling and slaughter of livestock have increased in recent years, particularly after possible HMSA violations were revealed at a slaughter plant in California in 2008 and one in Vermont in 2009. This statement summarizes our report being released today that (1) evaluates USDA's efforts to enforce HMSA, (2) identifies the extent to which FSIS tracks recent trends in FSIS inspection resources for enforcing HMSA, and (3) evaluates FSIS's efforts to develop a strategy to guide HMSA enforcement. To perform this work we, among other things, conducted a survey of inspectors-in-charge--those responsible for reporting on humane handling enforcement in the plants--from a random sample of inspectors-in-charge at 257 livestock slaughter plants from May 2009 through July 2009. Our sample allowed us to make estimates about the observations and opinions of all inspectors-in-charge at U.S. slaughter plants. We obtained responses from 235 inspectors-in-charge, for an overall survey response rate of 93 percent. We also examined a sample of FSIS noncompliance reports, suspension data, and district veterinary medical specialist reports in all 15 of FSIS's district offices for fiscal years 2005 through 2009.

Our survey of inspectors at slaughter plants and analysis of FSIS data suggest that inspectors have not taken consistent actions to enforce HMSA. In responding to our survey, different inspectors indicated they would take different enforcement actions when faced with a violation of humane handling requirements. In addition, our review of noncompliance reports 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 to inadequate training. Second, 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. Last, while FSIS has strategic, operational, and performance plans for its inspection activities, they do not clearly outline goals, needed resources, time frames, or performance metrics. Nor do these plans provide a comprehensive strategy to guide HMSA enforcement. In our report, we recommend, among other things, that FSIS take actions to strengthen its oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods at federally inspected facilities. In commenting on a draft of the report, USDA did not state whether it agreed or disagreed with our findings or recommendations, but it stated that it plans to use them in improving efforts to enforce HMSA.

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