Farm Animal Cruelty Laws: A Status Report

Many people think that the law requires humane slaughter of farm animals used for food. And, there is a federal law that requires " cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are [to be] 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". Humane Methods of Slaughter Act or HMSA.

Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors are supposed to enforce this law. Many states have a similar law.

The Twenty Eight Hour Law, the nation’s first federal humane law, requires transports of farm animals to stop and offload them for food, water and rest at least every 28 hours. 

But did you know the government has interpreted the HMSA to mean birds – chickens, turkeys and any other bird raised and slaughtered for food – are not protected by the Act. Birds make up 90% of the animals slaughtered for food; yet they have virtually no protection from inhumane slaughter.

And there is little enforcement anyway of HMSA. 

The Government Accountability Office has confirmed repeatedly that the enforcement of HMSA is abysmal. In 2004 GAO found the most frequent violation noted by inspectors in slaughter houses was ineffective stunning, meaning animals were slaughtered while they were still conscious. GAO noted there was no effort made to stop the ineffective stunning and the records kept by inspectors were so poor, it was impossible to tell even by 2008 that there had been any improvement. 

By 2010 GAO was adamant "[a]ctions are needed to strengthen enforcement" of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. GAO noted despite years of reports and highly publicized incidents of abuse at slaughterhouses, FSIS enforcement remains grossly inconsistent and in many places, non-existent. The new Food Safety Modernization Act was supposed to mean more inspectors to enforce HMSA, but with the severe budget constraints, it is unlikely to happen.

Undercover investigations have given us a glimpse of the terrible suffering endured by farm animals awaiting slaughter at these facilities. Abuse such as that revealed at the California Westland-Hallmark Co. and Bushway Packing, Inc. in Vermont. Predictably, the industry has blamed the problem on the undercover investigations. This past year bills were introduced in 4 states to make it a crime to distribute as well as film or photograph any activity on a farm without permission. Some bills went so far as to try to punish advocates who obtain jobs on factory farms to expose farm animal cruelty.

The bills did not pass, and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Executive Vice President W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA, said, "Too often, those in the industry seem more concerned about attacking those responsible for producing the videos than addressing the abuse depicted in them, and that attitude has got to change. Attempting to shift the blame is a denial of the real issue.

"If producers were treating the animals in a humane manner, there would be no need for undercover filming. Frankly, we can’t understand why responsible producers would object to being filmed.

"We’re seeing this happen much too often, and it’s time we take a stronger stance against such abuse. The bottom line is that we must have zero tolerance for these abuses, isolated or otherwise."

The AVMA has called for installation of video cameras in slaughter facilities.

The undercover investigations have prompted some improvements in regulations concerning the treatment of "downer" or disabled, non-ambulatory cows and calves at slaughter facilities. These animals are now supposed to be humanely euthanized and not beaten, hit with an electric prod, shoved with a forklift, dragged or otherwise forced to slaughter. Other "downer" farm animals, however, can still be brutally forced to slaughter. Industry is challenging in court a California law that would provide broad protections for non-ambulatory farm animals. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide the case. 

Many state animal cruelty laws are of little or no help. Some states exempt farm animals from animal cruelty laws or find any treatment of them is legal as long as it is a "accepted", "commonly accepted", "usual and customary", "normal", or even just a "common", "usual" or "customary" animal husbandry or industry practice. This can include a number of terribly cruel acts like killing hens in a woodchipper or grinding male baby chicks alive.  

Before they even get to the slaughter house, farm animals suffer brutally cruel treatment that has been legal for the most part, like the practice of shoving a pipe down the throat of a goose or duck to force feed the animal several times a day.

As a result the bird’s liver swells to ten times the normal size in just a matter of weeks and the animal is then slaughtered and used for foie gras, a delicacy served in fine restaurants. The birds suffer lacerations of the throat and can choke and suffocate; they have difficulty standing, moving or breathing; suffer nerve damage and degenerative disease and lose liver function. 

Some of the most egregious abuses are the intensive confinement 24/7 on "factory" farms of

  • egg laying hens warehoused in battery cages where each hen has space equivalent to 2/3 of the size of a sheet of typing paper;
  • pregnant pigs in gestation crates where they can barely move let alone turn around or stretch their limbs; and
  • veal calves tied in small stalls where they also can barely move.

In the past few years, an anti-confinement movement has resulted in laws in Michigan, Maine,  Colorado and Arizona that ban confinement of pregnant pigs in gestation crates and veal calves in tie stalls or confined enclosures. The Michigan law and California with its successful Prop 2 ballot initiative ban battery cages for egg laying hens as well. Oregon and Florida ban gestation crates for pregnant sows. Bills to ban these intensive confinement practices are pending in New York and Massachusetts.

Ballot initiatives underway in Washington and Oregon this year to end use of battery cages for egg laying hens were recently suspended. The Humane Society of the United States president and CEO Wayne Pacelle announced that instead of pursuing the initiatives, they would work with egg producers to pass federal legislation that would: (1) increase cage size, (2) allow hens perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas so they can engage in some of their natural behaviors; (3) end forced molting which is the practice of starving hens to manipulate the laying cycle, (4) establish standards to eliminate excessive ammonia in egg production facilities and for humane euthanasia, (5) improve labeling to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as ‘eggs from caged hens’ or ‘eggs from cage-free hens’; and (6) prohibit the sale of egg and egg products produced in conditions that fail to meet the above requirements.

Until announcing these plans to work with HSUS, egg producers as well as others in the industry reacted negatively to the anti-confinement movement. They pushed states to create "Livestock Care Standards Boards" to give agri-business more, if not exclusive control, over how farm animals and horses are treated. In Ohio the Livestock Care Standards Board was even enshrined in the state constitution, its power virtually absolute in the matter of horse and farm animal treatment and care. Animal welfare advocates have little access to these industry dominated Boards.

Currently, in Massachusetts, Senate Bill 335 would create a Livestock Care Standards Board, and all regulations issued by the Commissioner of Agriculture and Rural Affairs for care of farm animals and horses would be required to be approved by 2/3 vote of the LCSB.

It may be industry has stopped state anti-confinement initiatives, forcing the anti-confinement movement to the federal level where, as with the HMSA, there will be little funding or inclination for enforcement. That together with the rise of Livestock Care Standards Boards may leave little legal recourse to stop farm animal cruelty. We may be left with little more than the undercover investigations to protect our farm animals.