Humane Slaughter Act

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The Humane Slaughter Act, or the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, (P.L. 85-765; 7 U.S.C. 1901 et seq.) is a United States federal law designed to decrease suffering of livestock during slaughter. It was approved on August 27, 1958.[1] Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors at slaughtering plants are responsible for overseeing compliance, and have the authority to stop slaughter lines and order plant employees to take corrective actions. Although more than 168 million chickens (excluding broilers) and around 9 billion broiler chickens are killed for food in the United States yearly,[2] the Humane Slaughter Act specifically mentions only cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep and swine.[3]

Following news reports in early 2002[citation needed] alleging significant non-compliance, FSIS assigned additional veterinarians to its district offices specifically to monitor humane slaughter and handling procedures and to report to headquarters on compliance. The 2002 farm bill requests an annual compliance report to Congress, and in the FY 2003 agricultural appropriations act, Congress designated $5 million of FSIS funding for hiring 50 additional compliance inspectors. Language in the FY 2004 consolidated appropriations act directs FSIS to continue fulfilling that mandate, and the FY2005 budget request calls for another $5 million to be allocated for enforcement activities. A January 2004 GAO report states that compliance problems persist (GAO-04-247). Earlier concerns about humane treatment of non-ambulatory (downer) cattle at slaughter houses became irrelevant when FSIS issued regulations in January 2004 (69 FR 1892) prohibiting them from being slaughtered and inspected for use as human food.[4]

Content of the Humane Slaughter Act[edit]

7 U.S.C.A. § 1902. Humane methods

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

(a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, 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; or

(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Islamic and Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

According to the law, animals should be stunned into unconsciousness prior to their slaughter to ensure a death with less suffering than in killing methods used earlier. The most common methods are electrocution and CO2 stunning for swine and captive bolt stunning for cattle, sheep, and goats. Frequent on-site monitoring is necessary, as is the employment of skilled and well-trained personnel. An animal is considered properly stunned when there is no "righting reflex"; that is, the animal must not try to stand up and right itself. Only then can it be considered fully unconscious. It can then proceed down the line, where slaughterhouse workers commence in cutting up its body.

The act contains a broad exemption for all animals slaughtered in accordance with religious law. This generally applies to animals killed for the kosher and Halal meat market. Jewish law (halakha) prescribes that the animal be fully sensible before slaughter, and while stunning debatable in Islamic law (sharia), the latter too requires that the animal be killed through ritual slaughter and not due to stunning. Proponents of these slaughter methods claim that the severing of the animal's carotid arteries, jugular veins and vagus nerve renders the animal unconscious more effectively than most other methods.

History of the Humane Slaughter Act[edit]


The first version of the HMSLA was passed in 1958. Public demand for the act was so great that when asked at a press conference whether he would sign it, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, "If I went by mail, I’d think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter." Senator Hubert H. Humphrey was the author of the first humane slaughter bill introduced in the US Congress and chief Senate sponsor of the Federal Humane Slaughter Act, which passed in 1958. National organizations like the Animal Welfare Institute and The Humane Society of the United States supported its passage.


In 1979, the HMSLA was updated and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors were given the authority to stop the slaughtering line when cruelty was observed. Officially, slaughtering was not to continue until said cruelty, whether as a result of equipment or of abuses by personnel, was corrected. However, the USDA eventually stopped authorizing USDA inspectors to stop the line, since doing so incurs considerable cost of time for the industry.[citation needed]


Improvements were made on May 13, 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the Farm Bill (Public Law 107-171) into law. It includes a Resolution confirming that the HMSLA should be fully enforced.

When introducing the Resolution on the Senate floor, Senator Peter Fitzgerald said:

On April 10, 2001, the Washington Post printed a front page story entitled "They Die Piece by Piece." This graphic article asserted that the United States Department of Agriculture was not appropriately enforcing the Humane Slaughter Act. In response, I am introducing this resolution that encourages the Secretary of Agriculture to fully enforce current law including the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, as amended by the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1978.

The Humane Slaughter Act simply requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain before they are harvested. However, apparently this law is not being enforced in some instances. For example, the Washington Post article reported that "enforcement records, interviews, videos and worker affidavits describe repeated violations of the Humane Slaughter Act" and "the government took no action against a Texas beef company that was cited 22 times in 1998 for violations that include chopping hooves off live cattle".

Criticism of the HMSLA[edit]

Exclusionary policies[edit]

The HMSLA is criticized by animal rights advocates and the Humane Society of the United States for only including cattle, pigs, and sheep but not poultry, fish, rabbits or other animals routinely slaughtered for food. After a 2004 PETA undercover investigation which publicized abuse of chickens by employees of a West Virginia Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse that supplied chickens to KFC, PETA was joined by the Humane Society in calling for the Humane Slaughter Act to be expanded to include birds.[5]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]