Overview of the Humane Slaughter Act

It offers little protection for farmed animals in the US.

Cows in a pen looking at camera.

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This article contains new information and was updated and re-written in part by Michelle A. Rivera.

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. 1901, was originally passed in 1958 and is one of the few legal protections for farmed animals in the United States. Commonly called the "Humane Slaughter Act," the law sadly doesn't even cover most of the animals farmed for food. The Act also didn't cover downed veal calves. However, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced in 2016 that facilities must provide humane euthanasia for veal calves who are sick, disabled or dying. Heretofore, the common practice was to toss the calves aside and hope they recover enough to walk to the abattoir on their own. This meant that suffering calves would languish for hours before being put out of their misery. With this new regulation, these calves must be humanely euthanized immediately and held back from production of food for humans.

What is the Humane Slaughter Act?

The Humane Slaughter Act is a federal law that requires that livestock is rendered unconscious before slaughter. The law also regulates the transport of equines for slaughter and regulates the handling of "downed" animals. Downed animals are those who are too weak, sick or injured to stand.

The purpose of the law is to prevent "needless suffering," improve working conditions, and improve "products and economies in slaughtering operations."

Like other federal laws, the Humane Slaughter Act authorizes an agency - in this case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture - to promulgate more specific regulations. While the law itself mentions "a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means" for rendering the animals unconscious, the federal regulations at 9 C.F.R 313 go into great, chilling detail on exactly how each method should be performed.

The Humane Slaughter Act is enforced by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. The law addresses only slaughter; it does not regulate how animals are fed, housed, or transported.

What Does It Say?

The Act says that a slaughter is considered humane if "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 if the livestock is slaughtered in accordance with religious requirements "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."

The Exclusion of Billions of Farmed Animals

There is one very big problem with the coverage of the law: the exclusion of billions of farmed animals.

Birds make up the majority of farmed animals slaughtered for food in the US. While the law does not explicitly exclude birds, the USDA interprets the law to exclude chickens, turkeys, and other domestic fowl. Other laws define the word "livestock" for other purposes, and some include birds in the definition, while others do not. For example, the Emergency Livestock Feed Assistance Act includes birds in its definition of "livestock" at 7 USC § 1471; the Packers and Stockyards Act, at 7 USC § 182, does not.

Is the USDA Correct About Poultry?

Poultry eaters and organizations representing poultry slaughterhouse workers sued the USDA, arguing that poultry is covered by the Humane Slaughter Act. In Levine v. Conner, 540 F. Supp. 2d 1113 (N.D. Cal. 2008) the US District Court for the Northern District of California sided with the USDA and found that the legislative intent was to exclude poultry from the definition of "livestock." When plaintiffs appealed, the court in Levine v. Vilsack, 587 F.3d 986 (9th Cir. Cal. 2009) found that plaintiffs lacked standing and vacated the lower court's decision. This leaves us with no court ruling on whether the USDA correctly excludes poultry from the Humane Slaughter Act, but little chance of challenging the USDA's interpretation in court.

State Laws

State laws on agriculture or anti-cruelty laws may also apply to how an animal is slaughtered in the state. However, instead of providing additional protections for farmed animals, state laws are more likely to explicitly exclude livestock or routine agricultural practices.

Animal Rights and Animal Welfare Perspectives

From an animal welfare position that does not object to animal use as long as the animals are treated humanely, the Humane Slaughter Act leaves a lot to be desired because of the exclusion of birds. Of the ten billion land animals slaughtered each year for food in the United States, Nine billion are chickens.  Another 300 million are turkeys. The standard method of killing chickens in the US is the electric immobilization method, which many believe is cruel because the birds are paralyzed, but conscious, when they are slaughtered. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Humane Society of the US support controlled atmosphere killing as a more humane method of slaughter because the birds are unconscious before they are hung upside down and slaughtered.

From an animal rights perspective, the term "humane slaughter" is an oxymoron. No matter how "humane" or painless the method of slaughter, the animals have a right to live free of human use and oppression. The solution is not humane slaughter, but veganism.

Thanks to Calley Gerber of Gerber Animal Law Center for the information about Levine v. Conner.