Coronavirus Information and Update: Spring 2021 Plans

September 20, 2019

Students in CALS’ Animal Law Litigation Clinic Receive Their First Real World Lesson In The Difficult Arena Of Advocating For Farmed Animals

  • Two decisions from the USDA this week apply to pigs.

This fall, the Center for Animal Law Studies launched the Animal Law Litigation Clinic (ALLC) — a first-of-its-kind clinic devoted to litigation to protect the interests of farmed animals. With the semester underway, students are already being exposed to the difficult and often heart-wrenching legal issues faced by lawyers concerned with protecting farmed animals. On display this week are two decisions by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) relating to the slaughter of pigs. Here, Professor Delcianna Winders, the Director of the ALLC, breaks down the legal issues, shares her opinions on the decisions, and explains why they are of concern to animal protection advocates and the subject of study in the ALLC. Professor Winders has written widely on laws governing animal treatment, and has been involved in more than a dozen lawsuits against the USDA, including as counsel, plaintiff, and expert amicus.

To millions of Americans, pigs are simply dinner. But animal protection attorneys recognize that pigs are sentient beings capable of emotion and they are also among the smartest non-human animals. Those special traits are not part of the legal discussion about when and how pigs can be legally slaughtered in the United States, though they should be. In two decisions from USDA this week, the federal government has: (1) denied a petition by a coalition of animal protection organizations to prevent the slaughter of pigs who are too weak or sick to walk to their own death; and (2) announced a new rule that will remove speed limits on the slaughter of pigs, while simultaneously reducing federal oversight at slaughterhouses. 

The Slaughter of Downed Pigs

More than five years ago, a coalition of animal protection groups led by Farm Sanctuary formally petitioned the USDA to ban the slaughter of pigs who are “downed” or non-ambulatorytoo sick or injured to walk or standfor human consumption. 

The agency had already banned such slaughter of downed cows after an undercover video shot by an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States showed appalling abuses of downed cows by workers at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, California. 

The Farm Sanctuary petition seeking the same ban for downed pigs–and its more than three dozen accompanying exhibits–laid out in detail why such a ban is critical in order to comply with legal mandates intended to protect animal welfare and food safety, and why it is legally impermissible to treat pigs differently from their bovine counterparts. 

Among other things, allowing downed pigs to be slaughtered for human consumption incentivizes subjecting sick and injured animals to inhumane transport and handling, including shocking, prodding, kicking, and dragging. In addition, downed pigs are more likely to harbor a host of pathogens that are dangerous to human health, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, and H1N1 swine flu. 

The agency received numerous letters in support of the petition, and none in opposition. Nevertheless, and despite abundant and compelling evidence about the need to extend the ban on slaughtering downed cows to include pigs in order to ensure compliance with animal welfare and food safety mandates, on Monday the USDA denied the petition, outrageously contending that its existing enforcement procedures–which have repeatedly been condemned by its own Office of Inspector General (OIG) as inadequate–combined with industry self-policing suffice to protect animal welfare and food safety. 

 The Slaughterhouse Rule 

The day after denying the downed pig petition, the USDA went even further in its commitment to eschewing animal welfare and food safety in favor of deference to industry and announced a final rule completely doing away with limits on slaughter line speeds for pigs while simultaneously reducing government oversight at pig slaughterhouses. 

Each year in the United States, we slaughter well over 124 million pigs for human consumption both here and abroad. Under current law, there is “speed limit” for how quickly pigs can be slaughtered. Currently, that limit is 1,106 pigs per hour. Under the new rule there will be no limit whatsoever.

Why does it matter? During a pilot project that preceded the new rule, an investigation by Compassion Over Killing in one slaughterhouse in the pilot study uncovered disturbing and significant food safety and animal welfare issues that were captured on video [warning, this link is to the undercover video and the images are disturbing]. The video revealed pigs with gaping wounds and dripping pus being sent down the slaughter line, as well as pigs covered in feces. Obviously, humane slaughter is not occurring under those conditions, and the sheer horror of the situation for the pigs will only worsen as slaughter lines race to keep up with industry profit motivations.

In addition, the USDA’s own OIG found that slaughterhouses in the pilot program had high rates of food safety violations, and concluded that it was impossible to even determine whether the goals of the pilot program were being met because the agency failed to adequately oversee the program. 

If not reason and sound policy, what is driving the changes? Many see China’s demand for pork as a driver of the decision to advance the new rule now, after it was repeatedly tabled by prior administrations. In China, hundreds of millions of pigs are being killed due to swine flu, often through extremely barbaric methods, such as being buried alive. The resulting international demand for pork abroad seems a fairly obvious driver of the industry’s desire for faster pig slaughter in the United States. The USDA’s final rule notes that it allows “an average large establishment[]” to increase its profits “by approximately $3.78 million.”

What are the downsides? For workers, it is the increased likelihood of injuries as they work at breakneck pace to do the difficult work of the killing floor. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, representing more than 30,000 pork workers across the country, condemned the rule, stating Increasing pork plant line speeds is a reckless corporate giveaway that would put thousands of workers in harm’s way as they are forced to meet impossible demands.” For food safety, it is the increased risk that speed and reduced government oversight will exacerbate food safety hazards, with those concerns summarized by the Director of Food Policy for the Consumer Federation of America, noting that “higher line speeds, fewer inspectors, and no microbiological pathogen performance standards are a recipe for a food safety disaster.”

For the pigs, the downsides are obvious, but far too often overlooked: the increased likelihood that death comes only after extreme torture. Pigs raised for food already suffer tremendously at every stage of their short lives–they’re prematurely ripped away from their mothers just a few weeks after birth; they have their tails, testicles, and teeth cut off without any painkillers; and they’re tightly confined in filthy, unnatural conditions. They’re then shipped off to slaughter, often despite being sick or injured. Many die en route. Those who make it to the slaughterhouse alive can face cruel handling and ineffective stunning procedures–violations of the law that are often overlooked, according to the USDA’s OIG. 

For too long, our laws, and those tasked with enforcing them, have disregarded the interests of pigs and other animals raised for food–and the interests of taxpayers and consumers who, polling shows, care about animal welfare. National polling conducted earlier this summer regarding USDA’s rule showed that consumers overwhelmingly opposed the rule by a 28 point margin (64% to 34%). We must be working to increase legal protections for these animals, not to rollback what little protections exist. The federal government’s actions this week are a step in the wrong direction and won’t go unchallenged. If there is a silver lining to this travesty, it is that advocates for food safety, worker safety, and animal welfare are working together on this issue of common interest and will undoubtedly make that challenge stronger together.  


*The views expressed above are those of the author and not necessarily that of Lewis & Clark Law School