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Is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act Really Humane?

April 28, 2022

Despite its name, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act provides very little regulation around the treatment of animals on factory farms.

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, or HMSA, was originally passed on August 27, 1958, with the intention of regulating the treatment of animals on farms and ensuring that they are not subjected to undue suffering and pain during the slaughter process. The HMSA applies to “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock,” which has been interpreted as goats and other equines such as horses and donkeys. The Act excludes animals such as chickens, turkeys, and fish, which make up the largest number of animals slaughtered in factory farms each year. The HMSA states that the only legal methods of slaughter are methods deemed as “humane,” meaning that “all animals are 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.”

Although it is intended to reduce the suffering of animals in factory farms, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act has been shown to be inconsistently enforced, causing oversights in inspection which can lead to risks for both animals and humans. Without proper enforcement, the HMSA does little to protect animals in factory farms from “needless suffering.” Furthermore, while Congress determined that the HMSA could also ensure better working conditions for workers on factory farms, the lack of consistent enforcement again renders this an empty claim.

“Downer” Cattle

A significant part of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act involves nonambulatory disabled cattle, or “downer” cattle. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the entity within the United States Department of Agriculture that is responsible for enforcing the HMSA, as well as the group in charge of keeping records of downer cattle and other animals. Downer animals are animals that are so seriously malnourished, sick, or injured that they cannot stand on their own. Because these animals are so markedly unhealthy, the FSIS designated these cattle as not safe to be consumed by humans due to their risk of carrying bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. Not much is known about BSE and how it impacts humans, but researchers have found that most humans who consume BSE-contaminated products and contract the human variant of the disease, which has no cure, will die within a year.

The present iteration of the HMSA requires farmers to notify FSIS inspectors whenever an animal becomes nonambulatory so they do not enter the human food supply after they are slaughtered. A bill passed in the state of California in 2009 requires that once an animal is deemed to be a downer, it must be either treated or euthanized immediately, in a “humane” manner. However, while the HMSA does have specifications regarding the treatment of nonambulatory cattle and animals, it has proven to be difficult and inconsistent to enforce.

Shortcomings of the HMSA

The HMSA is enforced by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) officers. In 2010, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report  describing several shortcomings of FSIS officers in enforcing the HMSA. The report concluded that “[FSIS] inspectors have not taken consistent actions to enforce HMSA.” They referenced a survey that they sent out to FSIS inspectors, in which they were asked how they would respond if they observed slaughter plant employees using electric cattle prods on more than 50 out of 100 cattle, which is defined by industry standards as exceeding the reasonable threshold that constitutes humane treatment. Forty percent of responding inspectors said they would take regulatory control action (which would prohibit the use of the cattle prod until its use is deemed acceptable to the inspectors), 22 percent said they would only write a noncompliance report on the plant, nine percent said they would suspend plant operation, six percent said they did not know, and an astonishing 23 percent said they would not take any of the above action. This lack of consistent enforcement of one of the core provisions of the HMSA indicates a larger pattern of difficulty enforcing the Act as a whole. The GAO report on the enforcement of the HMSA noted that the goals set by FSIS regarding the enforcement of the HMSA are not specific enough to the direct enforcement of the Act.

Another issue critics have identified within the HMSA is its exclusion of the vast majority of animals commonly raised in factory farms: specifically, chickens and other birds. In fact, in 2005, the USDA had to issue a statement explicitly stating that birds are not included in the HMSA, and that the Act does not require humane slaughter methods for birds. A separate Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act is the closest thing to a requirement of humane slaughter methods for birds, but its only requirement is that birds are treated “in a manner that is consistent with good commercial practices.” These much looser guidelines for how to treat chickens, turkeys, and other birds raised in factory farms are a core failure of the HMSA at truly protecting animals from needless suffering as it claims to do.

Since much of the HMSA aims to regulate the inspections of livestock before and after slaughter in an effort to reduce the possibility that a downer cow could enter the human food supply and spread BSE, most of the efforts put into enforcing the Act go toward inspections of cattle and of their living conditions, although different inspectors have different opinions on what is and is not acceptable treatment. At the end of the day, the inconsistencies at the heart of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, as well as the irregular enforcement of the Act, convey the very clear message that the HMSA is meant to focus more heavily on ensuring that animals slaughtered on factory farms are up to “human-grade” food standard than to emphasize their humane treatment and minimize their suffering.

Margaret Doyle is a college advocacy intern for FFAC studying Sociology and Communications at the University of San Diego.