Can More and Better Regulation Stop the Cruelty in the Cattle Slaughterhouses?

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Domestic Policy Subcommittee held a hearing on April 17 called "After the Beef Recall: Exploring Greater Transparency in the Meat Industry". The Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), heard testimony from  representatives of animal welfare organizations, industry executives, USDA, General Accounting Office, union representative for National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, American Federation of Government Employees; and companies pursuing  humane farming solutions.

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of HSUS reminded the Subcommittee that it was the HSUS undercover video that exposed the terrible cruelty to downed cows at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino. It was that video that led to criminal charges against 2 employees, the massive beef recall and the closing of the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. facility. 

Pacelle explained, "Our undercover investigator worked at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company for approximately six weeks at the end of 2007. The investigator witnessed and documented egregious mistreatment of animals, particularly downed cows too sick or injured even to stand or walk. He filmed workers ramming cows with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks often in sensitive areas, dragging them with chains pulled by heavy machinery, and torturing them with a high-pressure water hose to simulate drowning as they attempted to force crippled animals to walk to slaughter.

"In one case, he videotaped a cow who collapsed on her way into the stunning box. After she was electrically shocked and still could not stand, she was shot in the head with a captive bolt gun to stun her and then dragged on her knees into slaughter.

"This investigation has …led us to the inescapable conclusion that there are serious shortcomings in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) policy on handling downer cattle and the agency’s overall inspection program.

"The investigator’s job at Hallmark was to help drive cattle from transport trucks and holding pens into a chute that led to the killing floor. He regularly worked grueling ten-hour days, five or six days a week. The job of getting tired, bewildered, and hungry cattle to move is challenging and made even more difficult when the animals are primarily end-of-production, or ‘spent,’ dairy cows, who are often sick, injured, and suffering. He routinely witnessed blatant and commonplace cruelties inflicted on animals by employees who ignored regulations meant to prevent the torment and abuse of downed animals, simply so they could get these cattle who could not even walk into the kill box. These were not isolated incidents of mistreatment of downed cattle, but deliberate acts repeated over and over again. They were part of the culture of the operation."

Pacelle warned, "The horrific treatment of animals we documented is being downplayed as an unconscionable aberration – the work of just a handful of rogue employees. This is a faulty characterization. It has come to light that Hallmark/Westland had a long, documented history of abusing downed cattle…. Either management provided instructions to get the downers moving or was asleep at the wheel and let employees run wild – in either case, it’s an indictment of management. The so-called training that employees received was a perfunctory, paper exercise, making a mockery of subsequent claims by the company’s president that the plant had a rigorous humane handling training program. The only real training that our investigator received on the subject was in how to alter his behavior to avoid being caught for violations. Just before an announced audit, Hallmark instructed employees to conceal their conduct and stop using electric prods while the auditors were present.

"While industry representatives have not attempted to deny that the abuses at Hallmark occurred, many have been quick to claim that this was an exception…. But this was a case of one HSUS investigator uncovering abuses that went unnoticed or unattended by five full-time USDA inspectors at a plant where other animal protection organizations had already flagged concerns to the agency.

…[T]hey claim they didn’t know, and that fact should make us skeptical about their confident assertions that such conduct does not occur elsewhere….

Stanley Painter, Chairman, National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO pointed out, "There seems to be too much reliance on an honor system for the industry to police itself. …[A] couple of facts have emerged that point to a system that can be gamed by those who want to break the law. First, we know that the FSIS veterinarian assigned to the [Hallmark/Westland] facility conducted ante-mortem inspection outside in the holding pen twice during his shift – at 6:30 am and at 12:30 pm. During the time in-between, the veterinarian would go back inside the plant to supervise the actual slaughtering process. According to current practices, that meant that if any animal went down after he conducted ante-mortem inspection, it would be up to the company to alert the FSIS veterinarian to come back out to do another check on the animal. It is apparent from the video shot by the investigator for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that did not occur, as it appears that downed animals were sent to slaughter after the initial ante-mortem inspection.

"Second, it is apparent from the HSUS video that some cattle arriving at the Hallmark/Westland facility were not able to walk on their own either from the trailers that transported them to the facility or could not stand once in the holding pen without extraordinary measures being taken by plant employees to force the animals to stand, such as pull their legs with a chain, gouging their eyes with a baton, water boarding them, or ramming a forklift into their sides. These were all clear violations of the Humane Slaughter Act."

Painter went on, "There have been some who have argued that since there were five FSIS inspection personnel assigned to the plant, how did this happen? …[T]he bottom line is that if plant management creates a culture for their employees to skirt around FSIS regulations, they can usually find a way to do it because the inspection personnel are usually outnumbered."

Painter also cited ongoing severe shortages in the inspection staff as a reason for these failures.

Current regulations

The USDA regulations do provide that all non-ambulatory disabled cattle cannot be slaughtered and used for meat. 9 CFR §309.3. But there is a loophole. According to the regulations, the Food Safety Inspection Service ("FSIS") will determine on a case by case basis whether animals that have passed inspection but then become non-ambulatory, may be slaughtered and used for human food.  9 CFR §309.3

Wayne Pacelle told the Subcommittee, "For years, USDA has publicly boasted about its comprehensive no-downer policy but circumvented it behind the scenes with a loophole that permitted slaughter of some cattle unable to walk. It is hard to overstate the duplicity in this action."

Regardless, federal law requires humane treatment of cattle and most other animals in the slaughtering process. Well, sort of. The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. 1901-1906 does require humane methods of slaughter and says livestock should 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".

The regulations allow the use of "[e]lectric prods, canvas slappers, or other implements … to drive animals" to slaughter if "used as little as possible in order to minimize excitement and injury". 9 CFR §313.2(b) It’s not clear what "other implements" include. Probably not a forklift. 

The regulations do ban the use of objects to drive animals to slaughter that an inspector believes would cause injury or "unnecessary pain" to the animals. 9 CFR §313.2(c Hopefully, the USDA or FSIS employs relatively sensitive inspectors because it is up to them to determine if a particular object used is causing injury or "unnecessary pain". Like the blade of a forklift or water sprayed up a cow’s nose. 

Downed animals are not to be dragged and should be moved only in "equipment suitable for such purposes". It is not clear what equipment would be suitable.

The regulations don’t say these downed or non-ambulatory animals can’t be pushed or shoved. There is nothing in the regulations about not using electric prods or "other implements" on these poor downed animals. Or spraying water up their noses. And could Hallmark have thought using a forklift to shove downed cows to slaughter was "equipment suitable for such purpose"? 9 CFR 313.2(b),(d).


Pacelle concluded, "First, rules must be clear so that enforcement is not an inherently subjective process prone to mistakes and abuse. In particular, the downer loophole must be closed. …The current flawed rule depends on plant workers summoning a USDA inspector back to reevaluate an animal who becomes nonambulatory after initial inspection, in order for the inspector to decide if the animal can be slaughtered, a system that seems bound to fail given the enormous pressure plant workers are under by their company superiors to move the maximum number of animals quickly to slaughter. This system creates financial incentives for precisely those abuses that we witnessed in the undercover footage….

"For the animals, removing current incentives that encourage workers to try every cruel tactic imaginable to move downers to the kill box would alleviate suffering. If crippled animals cannot be sold for food, slaughter plants have no reason to prolong their misery to try to get them through the slaughter process."

Temple Grandin,  Professor, Colorado State University and author of Animals in Translation, testified, " I have worked for over 30 years to improve the treatment of animals at slaughter plants. Half the cattle and 25% of the pigs are handled in facilities I have designed. …The recent video of dairy cows being tortured with a forklift made me sick. The abuse of cattle at this plant was 100% caused by a lack of employee supervision and a complete failure of the USDA inspectors. The Humane Slaughter Act prohibits dragging of crippled animals, and it was not enforced…..

"[M]any of the … regulations are vague and subject to different interpretations. Inspectors need better training and clear directives to improve consistency. It is impossible for different inspectors to be consistent when vague terminology is used such as ‘unnecessary pain and suffering.‘"

Grandin explained, "The present system of USDA inspection is like having traffic police giving out speeding tickets when they think cars are speeding. Police departments are able to enforce the speed limits in a uniform manner because the officer MEASURES a car’s speed with radar. The decision to pull a car over is based on a measurement, not subjective judgment of speed. For other traffic rules such as being in the wrong lane, the rules are very clearly written so that the officers will interpret them the same way."

Grandin recommended clear bans on certain practices. She further recommended "animal based outcome standards [measured with] numerical scoring. For example, the percentage of animals that fall during handling can be caused by either a slick floor or rough handling by people. Falling is an outcome of bad equipment, poorly trained people, or very weak cows that should have never been brought to the plant. Measuring the percentage of cows that fall at a plant is a sensitive indicator of three different types of problems [which can then be corrected]. The percentage of cattle falling can never be zero, so falling cannot be banned, but it should be kept at a very low level."

Grandin developed a numerical scoring system during a survey in 1996 of slaughter plants. 

Grandin concluded, "I recommend that the USDA adopt numerical scoring to make enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act more uniform and to uphold higher standards. Many progressive inspectors are already informally using it. For the practices that are prohibited, a handbook of very clear guidelines is needed for enforcement. It would list prohibited practices where there is a zero tolerance."

But is it best for the animals simply to try to fix the current system of supplying meat through government regulated, large agricultural operations?  

Joel Salatin, owner of a family farm, Polyface,Inc. called for a return to smaller community-based farming operations. He recommended a relationship between the farmer, processor, customer and the food as well as delivery no more than 4 hours away with processing also done nearby.

His indictment of USDA/FSIS monitored ;arge scale industrial agricultural operations was scathing:

"[L]et me address, pre-emptively, the industry’s criticism of Polyface because I’ve heard it hundreds of times: "that sounds cute and sweet, but it can’t really feed the world." Our tightly integrated system produces far more per acre than single-specie industrial systems. And while ours may require more people actually on the land, that simply puts more eyes in prettier offices looking at more natural beauty rather than being cooped up in uninspiring artificial walled-in environments. And we don’t pollute anyone’s groundwater, create dead zones surrounding estuaries, stink up the neighborhood, provide pathogen-friendly vectors via overcrowded housing, encourage diseases, …or any host of other maladies perpetrated on our culture to be cost externalized to society by secretive anti-scientific industrial food systems."

Salatin continued, "When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 exposing the atrocities in the meat packing industry, two things happened:

"l. Sales from the biggest processors dropped nearly 50 percent in 6 months. Many consumers reverted to local venues.

"2. Consumer advocates played into the hand of the big abusive processors like Swift and Co. to create the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"Had the FSIS never been created, the private market would have solved the problem by creating independent certifying organizations like Underwriters Laboratories, or the American Automobile Association. To assume that such a huge fall-off in market share would not have resulted in drastic industry-wide and marketplace measures is extremely unreasonable. But through the FSIS, the industry regained credibility and consumer acceptance. The industry has been hiding under FSIS skirts ever since.

"Every major overhaul of the FSIS, including the latest…prejudicially and encourage the proliferation and oligopolization of the centralized, industrial-scaled operations.

"When the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker stink and look obnoxious and are expelled from the village, no one can see what goes in the front door and comes out the back door any more. And those ostracized economic sectors begin taking social, nutritional, andeconomic short cuts.

"Today our culture does not ask: ‘Does it matter if the pig can fully express its pigness, or the chicken its chickenness, or the tomato its tomatoness?’ We view plants and animals as just so many inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however the human mind can conceive to manipulate them.

"The abhorrent abuses that birthed this committee hearing occurred in a federal inspected plant under the eyes of government agents who signed off on the proper … paperwork. The fact that this illegality was discovered, exposed, and now the company no longer exists may show well enough that 2lst Century information democratization is building its own transparency. And that’s a good thing. I believe I was invited to testify today because it was assumed I would be in favor of increased and/or mandatory videoing of abattoir activities. Sorry to disappoint, but I am not in favor of any increased governmental presence in abattoirs. You can’t regulate integrity.

"The Hallmark debacle occurred precisely because of cozy regulator-industry relationships, not in spite of them.

"But beyond that, Albert Einstein said "you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it." I would suggest, therefore, that it is not a lack of government oversight that created this opaqueness, but rather the cozy government-industrial fraternity that criminalized neighborhood abattoirs and cottage-based food processing."

USDA/FSIS Response

Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety, USDA, testified in the wake of the abuse revealed at Hallmark/Westland, inspectors have increased the amount of time spent verifying humane treatment. He said the FSIS has taken the suggestion of conducting video surveillance to ensure humane treatment in slaughterhouses. Dr. Raymond said a veterinarian is designated to verify that more time is spent by inspectors on assuring humane treatment.

Dr. Raymond admitted a recent audit revealed overcrowding at one facility, excessive use of electric stunning prods at another, and excessive balking at the stunning area in a third facility. Another was said to use a high powered hose to spray cattle though he insisted a warning was issued to "avoid undue excitement or stress" to the animals. He said another facility was suspended when it was found stunning was inadequate to render an animal insensible.

Sick CowAnd this is when you would think these facilities are on their best behavior during the investigation following the Hallmark/Westland fiasco.


Certainly, the best long term solution is veganism. In the meantime, please help push for humane alternatives.

Click here to read about an earlier hearing by a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee

Click here for more on the HSUS’ investigation into the abuses at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. and the resulting criminal charges, beef recall and closing of the facility.

What You Can Do

It’s time to pass the Downed Animal Safety and Protection Act. Click here to read more about this bill and how you can help pass it.

Also help pass the bill that would end the worst factory farming abuses for animals used in food products sold to the federal government. Click here for more information. 

Click here to watch the HSUS’ video.