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June/July 2002
USDA Stamp Isn’t Worth the Carcass It’s Printed On

By Gail A. Eisnitz


Officials representing all 7,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspectors recently announced at a press conference that, due to faster production speeds and industry deregulation, animals in American slaughterhouses are routinely beaten, skinned, dismembered, and scalded while fully conscious. The Humane Farming Association (HFA) and meat inspectors then provided a mountain of evidence—including worker affidavits and videotapes—to the USDA and petitioned the Department to institute immediate reforms.

Due to meat industry consolidation, individual workers in high-speed plants now kill as many as 1,100 large animals an hour—one animal every three seconds. One plant I visited kills 144,000 hogs a week. Because a minute of downtime costs packers hundreds of dollars, workers, to protect their jobs, often brutalize animals to keep the production line running.

The Humane Slaughter Act (HSA) requires that farm animals (except poultry) be humanely handled and rendered unconscious prior to being butchered. USDA meat inspectors who examine meat for signs of disease and contamination are also responsible for enforcing the HSA and for stopping the production line when they observe humane violations.

But there’s a hitch. In today’s high-speed slaughterhouses, meat inspectors have virtually no access to the areas of the plants where animals are handled and slaughtered. Inspectors are stationed far down the production line where they examine body parts and carcasses long after the animals have been killed.

As noted, the meat inspectors, along with HFA and the nation’s leading animal welfare and consumer groups, petitioned the USDA to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act. The petition’s request was simple: USDA should station inspectors in those areas of the plants where they can actually observe animals being handled and slaughtered.

Two weeks after HFA and others filed their petition, and a week after HFA ran a full-page ad in The New York Times exposing atrocities, the Burger King Corporation unleashed its vast PR machine, shifting into aggressive spin control. In a press release, Burger King declared USDA’s enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act “unacceptable” and then announced that it too was filing a petition. The fast food giant’s petition was a smorgasbord of essentially meaningless demands designed to supersede the inspectors’ and HFA’s petition.

Burger King also announced that it had established an “animal well-being advisory council” to examine slaughter and production practices. Even the meat industry’s own newspaper, Feedstuffs, found the effort transparent: “The council is heavily dominated by Burger King officials with little or no experience in livestock and poultry production, and sources said many of the guidelines ‘miss science’ and/or speak to practices that are no longer used by the industry or are being phased out.”

Burger King then stated that, as McDonald’s and Wendy’s have recently done, it intended to institute a self-inspection program to audit slaughterhouses that supply “raw materials” to the company.

Meat industry self-inspections, conducted on average once, perhaps twice, a year, do nothing more than stamp the Good Slaughterhousekeeping seal of approval on operations that supply the nation’s fast food chains. These pseudo-inspections are intended to lull American consumers into a false sense of security about how their burgers and bacon are produced while simultaneously providing fast food restaurant chains with significant opportunities for favorable media.

Meat packers are notorious for staging inspections. With announced audits, workers are warned days in advance, line speeds are reduced, and illegal activities are temporarily curtailed. During unscheduled visits, industry auditors are required to announce their presence at the plant’s guard shack before they enter the operation. Supervisors then use radios, code words, and whistle signals to alert employees to incoming visitors. In any case, by the time the “surprise” visitors have signed in, met with plant officials, donned hard hats, white smocks, and rubber boots, a good half hour has elapsed.

HFA recently obtained massive evidence documenting that, for years, IBP, Inc., a major fast food supplier, had been skinning and dismembering conscious cattle. Nearly two dozen plant workers signed affidavits stating that they were being required to skin and chop the legs off of many thousands of live, conscious animals. Video footage shot at the plant depicted fully conscious cattle cut open and dangling from the bleed rail. Law enforcement authorities concluded that criminal activity had occurred.

Auditors for McDonald’s visited IBP during the height of the abuses. Despite the atrocities taking place, they gave the plant a passing grade.

The meat industry and USDA then used audit results from this and other plants to inform the media that there has been a dramatic improvement in US slaughter practices.

All of this is academic, however, because the law requires thousands of USDA inspectors stationed inside slaughterhouses, not meat industry auditors, to enforce humane standards.

Shocked and outraged by the inspectors’ and HFA’s revelations, Congress urged the USDA to upgrade humane slaughter enforcement. In addition, Senator Robert Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, made an unprecedented speech on the Senate floor condemning the USDA, and then injected $1 million into the Department’s budget for upgraded enforcement.
Sadly, the USDA did not use the $1 million appropriation to station inspectors where they can observe animals being dragged, skinned, and scalded alive. Instead, it hired 17 new veterinarians who will be stationed in USDA field offices where they will have no direct oversight over slaughter practices. Moreover, the USDA has revealed that these individuals will spend the overwhelming majority of their time conducting duties unrelated to humane slaughter—contrary to the purpose of the added funding.

Anyone who believes claims by the USDA and fast food restaurant chains that slaughterhouse atrocities have been dramatically reduced by meat industry auditing programs should consider the source.

Gail A. Eisnitz
is author of Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment in the U.S. Meat Industry (Prometheus Books, 1997) and is Chief Investigator for the Humane Farming Association (HFA). For further information on how you can help stop slaughterhouse abuses, please contact HFA at


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