In 2020, there were 99 humane handling enforcement actions posted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) website.

Of the 99 enforcement actions, the following species were accounted for: swine, cattle, sheep, and goats. The largest number of enforcement actions were related to cattle (or 48.48%; 48 of 99), followed by swine (36.36%; 36 of 99) sheep (11.11%; 11 of 99), and goats (1.01%; 1 of 99). There was one action that included multiple animals (1.01%; 1 of 99) and the remainder of the enforcement actions did not clearly identify a specific animal (2.02%; 2 of 99).

Regulatory Choices
The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 (7 U.S.C. SS 1901) and the regulations that enforce it (9 CFR 313) outline the regulation of humane handling and stunning of red-meat species. There are three primary categories in which the regulations in 9 CFR 313 can be divided: stunning, handling, and facilities. In 2020, the majority (88.78%; 87 of 99) of the enforcement actions were stunning related, followed by handling related enforcement actions (9.18%; 9 of 99). While there were not any facility related enforcement actions in 2020, there were two enforcement actions which involved two distinct stunning and/or handling events and were counted as ‘multiple’ (2.04%; 2 of 99). With any enforcement action, it is important for establishments to review breakdowns in their processes; however, this is even more important in instances where there are multiple violations reported within a single enforcement action. In situations where there are multiple violations, it is critical that management identify the root source for these violations – are they due to the level of tolerance from staff, lack of training for new employees, lack of continuing education for current employees? Or, is there larger, ongoing issues at play? Identifying the root cause of these violations will not only help an establishment regain the ability to slaughter, but also to improve the focus on proper methods for handling and stunning to maintain a higher level of animal welfare and prevent future problems from arising. Additionally, there was one (1 of 99; 1.01%) enforcement action in 2020 that did not clearly specify the reason for the enforcement action.

Following an alleged violation of 9 CFR 313 there are two primary enforcement actions which may be taken by FSIS: notice of suspension (suspension) or notice of intended enforcement (NOIE). Suspension discontinues inspection services until the humane handing issue is addressed appropriately. Inspection may resume following a response that has been reviewed and approved by the corresponding FSIS district office. A NOIE is a warning which provides notification to an establishment that there is a basis for FSIS to suspend inspection; however, a NOIE provides the opportunity for an establishment to take immediate corrective action and future preventative actions without suspending inspection. If appropriate action is not taken within three business days, then a NOIE can turn into a suspension. In 2020, suspensions accounted for 59.60% (59 of 99) enforcement actions and NOIEs accounted for 18.18% (18 of 99) enforcement actions. Additionally, 22.22% (22 of 99) of enforcement actions were classified as a reinstatement of suspension.

Follow-up actions for enforcement actions also include two primary options: abeyance or deferral. Abeyances may be stated in one of three ways – suspension held in abeyance, NOIE held in abeyance, or reinstatement of suspension held in abeyance – and ultimately mean that the enforcement action has been lifted, the establishment may operate under agreed upon conditions, and that inspection may resume. Deferrals can be a follow-up action to an NOIE, and a letter of deferral is issued from the district office when an establishment has proposed adequate corrective and preventative actions. Of the 99 enforcement actions in 2020, 75.76% (75 of 99) resulted in abeyance, 18.18% (18 of 99) resulted in deferral. Six of the enforcement actions did not clearly state the follow-up action (6.06%; 6 of 99). It is important to note that after a follow-up action has been issued, FSIS may reinstate suspension if an establishment does not adequately address the humane handing concern.

In 2020, there were nine handling enforcement actions that involved cattle and swine. Handling related enforcement actions include improper handling and the improper treatment of non-ambulatory animals but may also be a result of negligence from employees. Improper handling includes excessive electric prod use, use of electric prods in sensitive areas, kicking, hitting and use of inappropriate handling tools such as shovels or PC pipes. Improper treatment of non-ambulatory animal may include anything listed as improper handling, in addition to dragging a live animal, and a delay in response to action involving an animal: either euthanasia or movement to a suspect pen depending on the species. If a non-ambulatory animal is identified and it is decided to euthanize the animal, it should be done immediately by an individual trained on proper euthanasia methods appropriate to the situation.

In 2020, there were 86 stunning related enforcement actions, with mechanical stunning methods – including gunshot and captive bolt – comprising 82.76% of the stunning related enforcement actions. Electrical stunning (5.75%), carbon dioxide (3.45%), and electrical stunning followed by mechanical stunning (8.05%) encompassed the remainder of the incidents. There were not any ritual slaughter related incidents in 2020. For all stunning related enforcement actions, the reason for stun failure or problem is categorized: 54.33% (45 of 86) did not report a clear reason; 26.74% (23 of 86) involved an issue with placement; 8.14% (7 of 86) involved an issue with restraint; 5.81% (5 of 86) involved an issue with equipment; and 6.98% (6 of 86) involved an issue with too much time between stunning and exsanguination. Of the 72 enforcement actions related specifically to mechanical stunning in 2020, the majority involved gunshot (47.22%, 34 of 72) followed by captive bolt (40.28%, 29 of 72), and combination – which describes incidences where some combination of captive bolt and gunshot were utilized to render an animal insensible (12.50%, 9 of 72).

Where to Start: Focus on Training
The enforcement actions from 2020 follow the trend of years past with the majority (88.78%) of the humane handling enforcement actions issued by FSIS being related to stunning, the majority (82.76%) of which fell under the category of mechanical stunning. From the enforcement actions that clearly stated the reason for stun failure, most stunning errors were related to placement. Fortunately, there are ways to improve stunning placement, and therefore stun effectiveness, through effective training, improved stunner position and improved restraint. Training is vital to ensure proper stun placement, and it is helpful to utilize heads from previously stunned animals to identify exactly where the brain is located; these heads can also be utilized to practice, especially when utilizing a captive bolt.

It is vital to approach the stunner operator training as a sequence. The first step in the training sequence should occur through instruction and observation, but the trainee should not be allowed to shoot live animals, this will come later. The second step should include practice application of the stunning tools on heads of animals that have been stunned. As the training starts, the head can be skinned or unskinned and should be split lengthwise with a head splitter or band saw to allow the trainee to see the bolt path and the brain location, this is an important step to enhance the quality of the training. Once it is deemed the trainee is ready to stun live animals, they should only be allowed to operate the stunner for short periods of time at first, so they are able to adjust to the physical demands of the job. If an employee new to the stunning position is expected to operate the stunner for an entire shift in a high-throughput facility without properly training their body to the rigors of the position, fatigue will likely set in. It is essential to check on the mental well-being of the stunner operators as their job can be both mentally and physically draining, good management can catch fatigue from either front to stop a crisis before it occurs.

Overall, it is important for establishments to have a robust Systematic Approach to Animal Welfare that utilizes a HACCP-like approach, following the procedures it outlines is a great way to prevent and avoid FSIS enforcement actions related to the Humane Slaughter Act. This includes addressing any issues related to humane handling immediately and can be helped by instilling a culture of diligence and ‘doing the right thing’ from everyone at the establishment.

Hannah Olsen is a master’s student and graduate research assistant at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and a member if the Animal Welfare Lab and UWRF Welfare Judging Team. 

Karly Anderson is a master’s student and graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Animal Welfare Lab Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. 

Katy Bishop is an animal science undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and a member of the Animal Welfare Lab. 

Joie Haines is an pre-veterinary medicine, animal science undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and a member of the Animal Welfare Lab. 

Olyvia Horsman is a pre-veterinary medicine, animal science undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and a member of the Animal Welfare Lab. 

Taylor Paye is a veterinary student in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a 2021 graduate of the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, and a previous member of the Animal Welfare Lab. 

Valerie Rakoczy is a pre-veterinary, animal science undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and a member of the Animal Welfare Lab. 

Dr. Kurt Vogel is an Associate Professor of Livestock Behavior and Welfare in the Animal and Food Science Department at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. He is also the President of Vogel Livestock Solutions – a food animal welfare consulting company, if you have any questions or comments, you can reach out to Dr. Vogel by email: