How to Define the term Egregious Animal Abuse and Minimize Excitement or Discomfort that are used by the FSIS/USDA for Humane Slaughter Regulatory Enforcement

by Temple Grandin
Professor of Animal Science
Colorado State University

January 2009: Revised
June 2011: Added section on making decisions
January 2014: Added section on FSIS Compliance Guide Interpretation


Proposed Guide to Assist FSIS Inspectors on a Systematic Approach to Humane Handling is Too Vague

The FSIS has published a draft of a guide titled FSIS Compliance Guide for a Systematic Approach to the Humane Handling of Livestock. The purpose of this guide is to help inspectors achieve compliance with the regulatory requirements of 9 CFR Part 313 on handling and stunning. The guide contains extensive checklists on facilities, handling, and stunning with wording lifted directly from the regulation. Unfortunately, the wording is very vague and provides almost no guidance. The regulation has lots of reference to wooden facilities because it was written in the 1970's. Some of the vague terms that are used throughout the document are "minimize excitement of livestock" and"minimize discomfort of livestock." These phrases can have very different meanings when plant operations are observed by different people. I am going to provide some recommendations on how to interpret these phrases on some of the other items on the extensive checklist.

Under personal practices, the phrases "minimize discomfort" and "minimize excitement" are used in reference to "electric prods", "other equipment", "stunning equipment," and "livestock movement." In general, indicators of discomfort in cattle or pigs would be vocalization during handling or restraint. It is my opinion that a plant has failed to minimize discomfort if the percentage of cattle or pigs vocalizing in either the stun box or conveyor restrainer exceeds 10%. Discomfort would also be occuring if an animal vocalizes in direct response to a gate slammed on it, or to electric prods, or it is reacting to sharp edges or excessive pressure applied by a restraint device.

Vocalization scoring cannot be used in sheep. Cattle and pigs will vocalize (moo, bellow or squeal) in direct response to an aversive event such as being poked with an electric prod. To put it in simple terms, cattle and pigs will tell you when they are hurt or scared. Sheep are the ultimate prey species animal and they remain silent when hurt or scared. However, sheep may either struggle and become agitated (excited) in an attempt to escape or chose not to react when subjected to an aversive event. Sheep will vocalize when separated from their mother. Recently, weaned lambs may vocalize at a packing plant. Weaned lambs vocalizing is not caused by plant operations. For all species vocalization is not scored in the lairage or stockyard.

Excitement would be occurring if an animal exhibits agitated behavior or struggling before it loses sensibility. Some examples of excited behavior are a series of small rapid slips in a stun box or alley. This causes animals to constantly move and refuse to stand still. This can be prevented by installing either rubber mats or steel bars on the floor of the stun box. Other indicators of excitement are animals rearing, hitting fences, jumping, or struggling. Struggling, kicking, or convulsions that occur after loss of consciousness has no effect on welfare. Therefore from the standpoint of the regulation, only excitement that occurs before loss of consciousness would be subject to regulatory requirements. These signs of excitement are valid for ALL species of animals. Excited sheep may struggle or jump in an attempt to escape. During the year 2008 many slaughter plants were shut down by USDA inspectors for several hours or days because an act of egregious animal abuse had occurred. There has been a great lack of consistency between inspectors on what constitutes egregious abuse. When does a plant really deserve to be shut down and have meat inspection suspended? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines egregious as “conspicuously bad” or flagrant. The definition of flagrant is that it “applies usually to offenses or errors that are so bad they can neither escape notice nor be condoned.” Dictionary.com provided synonyms for egregious: flagrant, deplorable, outrageous, heinous, shocking, or atrocious. The intent of the USDA directive on egregious abuse is to have greater punishments for the very worst Humane Slaughter Act violations. The best way to define egregious and help inspectors and auditors differentiate between egregious violations and less serious violations is to provide specific examples. Egregious acts are not limited to this list.

Egregious Acts of Animal Abuse

  1. Intentionally poking of a stick, electric prod, or other object into a sensitive part of the animal such as the eye, nose, mouth, ear, rectum, or udder.

  2. Cutting off limbs, skinning, or scalding an animal that shows any sign of return to sensibility. The American Meat Institute guidelines also have zero tolerance for starting dressing procedures on animals showing signs of return to sensibility. They MUST be immediately restunned.

  3. Breaking a bone, causing bruises, or causing falls in sensible animals with powered equipment such as animal restraint devices, head holders, stun box doors, or mechanical gates. This can be caused by either willful intent by a person, improper adjustment of the equipment, poor maintenance, or exceeding the capacity of the equipment. Some more specific examples are:

  4. Throwing, dragging, or dropping sensible animals. The Humane Slaughter Act regulation specifically forbids dragging sensible animals. There have been arguments between plant management and inspectors on what constitutes dragging. Is rotating a non-ambulatory pig on the floor to get it onto a sled an egregious act of dragging? I recommend that an egregious act of dragging be defined as dragging the animal more than 1 body length. This provides a guideline that is easy for an inspector to interpret and it allows for positioning a pig to put it on a sled or remove it from a chute.

  5. Multiple applications of a stunner that is obviously broken or malfunctioning.

  6. Numerical scoring on the American Meat Institute guidelines for stunning, falling, vocalization, or electric prod use that is over the serious problem level. Slipping scores would not be included. Egregious numerical score would be:

    Vocalization Over 10% of the cattle vocalize. The level for egregious vocalization in pigs needs to be determined. Do not use vocalization scoring for sheep.
    Electric Prod Use Over 50% of the animals are electrically prodded. Applies to all species.
    Falling Over 5% of the animals fall in any part of the plant's facilities. Applies to all species.
    Stunning Captive bolt - Over 10% of the animals require a second shot.
    Electric stunning - Over 5% of the animals wrong wand placement; Over 4% hot wanded.

  7. All of the acts of abuse listed in the AMI guidelines. Beating animals, deliberately driving animals over the top of other animals, or willfully slamming any type of object on an animal are listed as acts of abuse. There have been several plants shut down and there was an argument over whether or not a person was beating an animal or tapping it. This is an area where a good training video is needed. Until that video is available, another method for determining that egregious beating has occurred is to look for bruises or injuries. If the INTENTIONAL actions of a person cause a bruise or other injury that it should be considered egregious.

  8. Hoisting of a sensible animal by it’s leg or legs onto the bleed rail. This is an egregious violation of humane slaughter regulations. Unfortunately, there is a religious exemption in the U.S. regulation. However, the AMI guidelines and the regulations in Europe and Canada forbid hoisting of sensible animals before religious slaughter. Most large meat customers also forbid live shackling and hoisting. See the ritual slaughter section of Grandin.com and the AMI guidelines. There have been questions on how to interpret this when an animal showing a small sign of partial return to sensibility is re-stunned while it is hanging on the rail. Re-stunning the animal in this situation is the right thing to do. This would definitely NOT be an egregious violation and a plant should never be punished for doing this. Hoisting a sensible animal is egregious when it is an animal showing OBVIOUS signs of sensibility such as bellowing, squealing, natural blinking like live animals in the lairage (stockyard), or a full righting reflex.

  9. Failing to provide water for animals held over a weekend.

  10. A death loss of 10% of the pigs on a truck load of pigs which was caused by the truck having to wait 3 hours to unload when the temperature was 100 degrees F. This could have been prevented with fans, a water hose, or driving the truck to create better ventilation. This would be an example of egregious abuse caused by negligence.

Less Serious Distressful Conditions that would be out of Compliance but not Egregiuos

These problems must definitely be corrected and they would be out of compliance with AMI guidelines, customer guidelines, and humane slaughter regulations. They would be less serious than the egregious category.

  1. Numerical scores on any one of the AMI numerically scored items that are at the not acceptable level. Slipping scores should be included.

  2. Bumping cattle with a stun box gate and causing the animal to slip but not fall completely down.

  3. Spanking pigs hard on the ham with a paddle.

  4. An animal gets it’s leg caught in the gap between the truck and the unloading dock.

  5. Broken cleats or a slippery floor at the unloading dock that causes slipping.

  6. Over stocking a stockyard pen where there is not sufficient space for all the pigs to lie down without being on top of each other. Overstocking pens is especially detrimental for pigs during hot weather.

  7. Yelling at cattle and causing the animals to become visibly agitated.

  8. Leaving an animal in the stun box during lunch or during a break.

  9. A slippery floor in a stun box that causes an animal to make rapid small slips that causes it to become agitated and excited.

  10. An animal is observed striking a sharp edge on a broken gate as it enters a pen.

  11. Animals are left overnight with no water.

Possibly Harmful Things

These items are things that should be corrected that might cause distress to an animal in the future. Definitely not egregious or a serious violation, but should be corrected.

  1. A broken gate in the stockyard (lairage).

  2. A worn our floor in the one stockyard pen.

  3. Animals often balk and refuse to enter a chute. This can often be easily corrected by changing lighting or other simple changes. See other parts of www.grandin.com.

  4. Hydraulic controls that are broken or stiff and difficult to operate.

  5. A broken water trough.

  6. Worn out parts on restraining devices that have sharp edges.

  7. Broken slats on a conveyor restrainer.

  8. Lack of a good maintenance program for stunning equipment. Captive bolt guns should be taken apart and cleaned EVERY day.

  9. Gates that are difficult to open and close.

  10. Failure to prevent a build up of ice on the unloading ramp.

In Conclusion, There are Three Categories of Violations.

  1. Egregious abuse: The plant should be severely punished by either suspension of inspection or get suspended or delisted by a customer.

  2. Humane violations that must be corrected but are not egregious: These problems may be serious enough that an inspector should issue an NR (non-compliance record) or a customer should require a corrective action letter and a re-audit.

  3. Possibly harmful things should be corrected because they are likely to create a humane violation in the future: These should be noted by inspectors or in commercial auditor reports. These items need to be fixed before they cause a violation.

How Important is Intent?

A common question that often arises during discussion of which types of events should be considered egregious is:

How important is the intent of the person handling the animal?

In most cases, to make decision making easier for auditors, inspectors, and plant management the question of the intentn of the plant employee should be eliminated. For example, if a pig is dragged by an automated gate there is no intent. Other examples where there is no intent are stunning failures that exceed the AMI serious problem level or malfunctioning or poorly maintained equipment that causes bruises or broken bones. All three of the above examples would be egregious. Where problems occur during restraining, stunning, hoisting, or bleeding the intent of the plant employee should not be part of the decision making process. Therefore both intentional and unintentional acts should be considered egregious.

However, there are a few situations during handling at the plant and unloading of trucks where the intent of either the employee or the truck driver should be considered. In some cases it is impossible to prevent other animals from running over the top of a downed non-ambulatory animal. In this situation, intent should be considered. The auditor or inspector should answer the following questions:

  1. Did the person do it on purpose? If yes, it is egregious.

  2. Did the person make any attempt to stop the other animals?

Another situation where intent should be considered is when sensitive parts of the animal get poked by an electric prod or other object. There have been situation where an animal kicked an electric prod away from a person and it flew up and hit another animal in the eye. This should be considered an accident.


Click here to return to the Homepage for more information on animal behavior, welfare, and care.

Click here to return to the Welfare Guidelines section..

Click here to return to the Religious Slaughter section.