How are animals humanely killed?
Many people are unaware of the process that transforms a cow into a steak or a pig into a pork chop and are happy to keep it that way. Others are very concerned about this process and wonder whether it should even continue at all.
In the days when families grew and harvested their own animals, things were simpler. People knew where their meat came from because most of the time it came from their own backyards. They knew how it arrived on their dinner tables because it was probably brought there by a friend or family member. But as the U.S. population moved from the country into cities, the process of obtaining meat became much more complicated and people began to worry more and more about two things: the safety of their food and the treatment of the animals it had come from.
In the early 1900s, trains were used to transport animals from farms in the country to slaughterhouses in cities, where populations were large and the demand for meat was high. Large, centralized meat-packing plants were built near railway stations to make it easier for food animals travelling by train to reach the slaughterhouses. These plants were a new concept, and not regulated by the government, which meant that the owners and workers were free to do whatever they wanted in order to increase their profits. Often, the practices they used were cruel to the animals they processed and produced food that was unsafe for people to eat.
In 1906, a man named Upton Sinclair published a book called The Jungle. This book, written about the working conditions of immigrants in America, revealed the darker side of the meat-packing industry to the general public.
President Roosevelt sent people to investigate Sinclair’s reports and found that the conditions were as bad as Sinclair had said. In response, a new series of laws were passed. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 required the inspection of food animals both before and after slaughter, and the act addressed many of the public’s concerns about the safety of their meat.
The Meat Inspection Act did not, however, adequately address the public’s concerns about the humane slaughter of animals. For over fifty years, this issue went unregulated. Then, in 1958, Congress passed the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMSA). This law created guidelines that slaughterhouses needed to follow in order to remain in operation.
The most important of these guidelines required animals to be stunned before slaughter. This means that animals must be unable to feel pain when they are killed. The methods for accomplishing this differ between species and facility. Some facilities use captive bolt stunners, which use compressed air to shoot a bolt into the animal’s brain. This makes the animal instantly unconscious without causing pain.
There are several other regulations that have been put into place over the years. One provision of the HMSA was that new research be done in order to further improve slaughterhouse conditions. In response, animal scientists and producers worked together to formulate new procedures to make the slaughtering process easier on both the humans and animals involved.
Temple Grandin, a well-known animal behaviorist, was one of these researchers and is responsible for much of the improvement in beef cattle slaughterhouses today. She suggested several guidelines for keeping animals as calm as possible during slaughter:
Move animals using flags or sticks instead of electric prods
Keep the entrance lit and open; animals are nervous when walking into dark spaces
Reduce noise as much as possible and keep machinery in working order
Ask that workers do not shout or whistle
Today, the provisions of the HMSA and research done by animal scientists continue to inform the practices used in food animal slaughter. But information alone is not enough to ensure that humane practices are put into place in every facility. For that, there is the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This agency is responsible for making sure that slaughterhouses produce good, safe products while following the requirements of the HMSA.
In order to do this, FSIS has District Veterinary Medical Specialists that inspect slaughter facilities every 12 to 18 months. They also place a Public Health Veterinarian at every FSIS-inspected facility to enforce humane-handling rules.
To help the managers and workers at these facilities put the latest humane handling procedures into practice, FSIS issues handbooks and training guides. They also offer a video-monitoring program for those facilities working to review and improve their practices.
The slaughtering of animals remains a topic of much heated discussion both in Washington, D.C. and around dinner tables. But as time goes on, research advances, practices are improved, and the people and animals involved in producing food become safer.