The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Wednesday announced new measures aimed at ensuring the humane treatment and slaughter of all cattle at FSIS-inspected slaughter facilities.
Increased attention was drawn to FSIS’ inconsistent enforcement of the humane handling and slaughter laws last year when Dr. Dean Wyatt, a veteran public health veterinarian at the agency, blew the whistle on his federal regulators for ignoring egregious violations. The Government Accountability Office issued a report that largely backed up the veterinarian’s claims and pointed to some systemic enforcement failures, which impact both animal health and food safety.
“Under this Administration, we have significantly strengthened our ability to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, but we have more work to do and must continue to look for ways that ensure the safe and humane slaughter of animals,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “That is why we are taking concrete steps to address outstanding humane handling issues, ranging from enhanced employee training to clearer guidance on existing rules.”
USDA announced that FSIS will pursuing the following new measures:
— Issuing procedures to inspection personnel to clarify that all non-ambulatory mature cattle must be condemned and promptly euthanized to ensure they are humanely handled, regardless of the reason for the animal’s non-ambulatory status. The clarification is intended to ensure that the policy is consistently applied at all federally inspected establishments by resolving any uncertainty on how inspectors should interpret existing rules. This FSIS Notice was issued Wednesday.
— Responding to and soliciting comments on petitions from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Farm Sanctuary.
— Appointing an Ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety, designated specifically for humane handling issues. The ombudsman will provide FSIS employees a channel of communication to voice their concerns when the standard reporting mechanisms do not adequately address outstanding issues.
— Requesting the USDA Office of Inspector General audit industry appeals of noncompliance records and other humane handling enforcement actions by FSIS inspection program personnel. This will help determine whether FSIS has adequately handled humane handling violations identified by inspection personnel and challenged by an establishment. The audit will give the agency a better picture of how well the appeals process works, and if problems are found, FSIS will take action to address them.
— Delivering enhanced humane handling training to give inspection personnel more practical, situation-based training. Additional training modules that prepare inspectors for realistic scenarios they will face in the field will help the agency enforce HMSA regulations more effectively and consistently.
“When Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, they provided FSIS with the authority to prevent needless suffering, and we take our responsibility very seriously,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza in a USDA statement Wednesday. “Consumers need to be confident our inspectors have the direction they need to ensure that humane slaughter is carried out properly.”
The agency has announced similar measures aimed at improving enforcement. Last March, the USDA announced a final rule to amend federal meat inspection regulations to require a complete ban on the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle for use in human food. The agency created 24 new humane handling enforcement positions, including 23 in-plant personnel and a headquarters-based Humane Handling Enforcement Coordinator. In October, FSIS issued draft guidelines to assist meat and poultry establishments that want to improve operations by using in-plant video monitoring.