When GAO investigators asked USDA inspectors how they would react to incidents of excessive use of electric cattle prods, 22-percent said they would just file a report rather than taking stronger regulatory actions.
"In responding to our survey, different inspectors indicated they would take different enforcement actions when faced with a violation of humane handling requirements," states the GAO in its report. "In addition, our review of noncompliance reports identified incidents in which inspectors did not suspend plant operations or take regulatory actions when they appeared warranted."
Inspectors of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are charged with enforcing the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978 (HMSA), prohibiting the inhumane treatment of livestock in slaughter plants. Under the HMSA, inspectors who observe excessive use of electric cattle prods are to either issue a noncompliance report, issue a regulatory control action, prohibiting the use of a particular piece of equipment or shutdown the plant's operations.
Conducting its investigation after HMSA violations were discovered at slaughterhouses in Vermont and California, the GAO questioned a random sample of USDA inspectors-in-charge at 257 livestock slaughter plants from May 2009 through July 2009.
GAO also reported that a study of reports of actual cases of noncompliance at slaughter plants revealed "several" incidents in which inspectors failed to stop plant operations as required by law. All of the incidents involved excessive beating or prodding of animals, acts considered "egregious abuse" under the law and warranting a plant shutdown.
In its report, GAO recommended that USDA/FSIS take actions to strengthen its oversight of humane handling and slaughter methods and develop an integrated strategy that clearly defines goals, identifies resources needed, and establishes time frames and performance metrics specifically for enforcing HMSA.