Detailed Discussion of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

  • Cynthia Hodges, J.D., LL.M., M.A.
  • Animal Legal & Historical Center
  • Publish Date: 2010
  • Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law



The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) (7 U.S.C.A. §§ 1901 et seq.) is federal legislation that was incorporated into the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) in 1967 to further United States public policy of treating livestock humanely. Congress declared humane treatment of livestock to be public policy because it prevents needless suffering and improves working conditions, products and economies in the slaughtering industry. HMSA § 1901. HMSA furthers this policy by requiring that only humane methods of slaughtering and handling livestock in connection with slaughtering be used. HMSA § 1902. Unfortunately, HMSA lacks a general  enforcement provision since § 1903 was repealed in 1978. This is discussed more fully in Section IV, Subsection C.: “Lack of an Enforcement Mechanism.”


HMSA covers livestock animals, such as cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and “other livestock,” which has been interpreted to include goats and “other equines.” See HMSA § 1902(a); CFR § 313.15, § 313.16. Poultry animals (domestic birds) have been excluded from HMSA’s protection. This is discussed more fully in Section IV. Subsection A: “Exclusion of Certain Species.”


Under § 1902(a), livestock animals (cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and goats) must be “rendered insensible to pain... before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” The animal may be made unconscious of pain “by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective.” HMSA § 1902(a). The Secretary of Agriculture designates which methods are practical and humane, taking into account existing methods of slaughter and current scientific knowledge. HMSA § 1904(a), (b). These methods may be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at 9 C.F.R. § § 313.1 et seq. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for ensuring HMSA compliance for facilities under its jurisdiction (not state-inspected or small custom-exempt slaughterhouses. David J. Wolfson, Beyond the Law:  Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animals Raised for Food or Food Production, 2 Animal L. 123, 126 (1996)).

Acceptable methods to kill or render livestock insensible to pain include the use of carbon dioxide gas, captive bolt stunners, firearms, and electrocution. A particular method’s acceptability may depend on the species of livestock concerned. For example, cattle, calves, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules, and other equines may be killed or rendered unconscious by a single gunshot to the head, CFR § 313.16(a)(1), or by means of a captive bolt stunner. CFR § 313.15. If a stunner is used, it may be either a penetrating stunner that drives a bolt into the brain, CFR § 313.15(b)(1)(i), or a non-penetrating stunner (“mushroom stunner”) that drives a bolt with a flattened circular head against the external surface of the head over the brain. CFR § 313.15(b)(1)(i). Stunners that inject compressed air into the cranium may not be used on cattle. CFR § 313.15(b)(2)(ii). Swine, sheep, calves, cattle, and goats may be electrocuted to produce surgical anesthesia (a state in which the animal feels no pain) or to outright kill them. CFR § 313.30, 313.30(a)(1). Carbon dioxide gas may be used to produce surgical anesthesia in sheep and calves, and may be used to kill swine. CFR § 313.5, § 313.5(a)(1).

The HMSA’s requirement for humane methods of handling livestock in connection with slaughter has also been incorporated into the CFR. Such regulations mandate that animals be driven at a normal walking speed with a minimum of excitement and discomfort. CFR § 313.2(a). Electric prods, canvas slappers, and other tools used to drive animals are allowed, but their use must be kept to a minimum so as to reduce excitement and injury. CFR § 313.2(b). Excessive use of such devices is prohibited. CFR § 313.2(b). Anything that could cause injury or unnecessary pain, such as pipes or sharp or pointed objects, may not be used to drive animals. CFR § 313.2(c). In addition, livestock pens, driveways and ramps must be constructed in such a way so as to prevent injury or pain to the animals by providing secure footing, minimizing sharp corners, being free from sharp or protruding objects or openings, and preventing animals from changing direction while being driven. CFR § 313.1(a), (b), (d).


The Secretary of Agriculture has promulgated regulations to provide for the humane treatment of nonambulatory livestock (animals that cannot walk) in particular. See HMSA § 1907(b). These regulations prohibit the dragging of conscious nonambulatory livestock. CFR § 313.2(d)(2). Disabled animals must be moved on suitable equipment, such as on stone boats, or stunned before being dragged, CFR § 313.2(d)(2), (3). Dying, diseased, and disabled livestock must also be provided with a covered pen to protect them from adverse weather conditions while they await their ultimate fate. CFR § 313.1(c), § 313.2(d)(1). If the animals are held overnight, the pens must be large enough for them to lie down. CFR § 313.2(e). The animals must also have access to water, and must be fed if held for longer than 24 hours. CFR § 313.2(e).

Any person who violates the regulations providing for the humane treatment of nonambulatory livestock may be subject to criminal and civil penalties. HMSA § 1907(c). In general, the penalty for a knowing violation is a fine or imprisonment, or both. 7 U.S.C.A. § 8313(a)(1)(A). If a person knowingly moves any animal in violation of HMSA § 1907(b), he or she may face a fine or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both. Id. at § 8313(a)(1)(B). Multiple violations could result in a fine and imprisonment of up to 10 years, or both. Id. at § 8313(a)(2). Civil penalties range from $1,000 for the first violation if it is not for monetary gain, Id. at § 8313(b)(1)(A)(i), to $1,000,000 if the person has committed one or more willful violations. Id. at § 8313(b)(1)(A)(iii)(II).


HMSA, which was described by Senator Hubert Humphrey as “a mild and modest beginning in the field of humane slaughter,” Levine v. Conner, 540 F.Supp.2d 1113, 1119 (2008), vacated and remanded Levine v. Vilsack, 587 F.3d 986 (2009), has some significant limitations. For example, it does not address how animals are raised on the farm, David J. Wolfson, Beyond the Law:  Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animals Raised for Food or Food Production, 2 Animal L. 123, 126 (1996), or apply to any domestic birds (poultry) or animals killed in ritual slaughter. HMSA also lacks a general enforcement mechanism.

A. Exclusion of Certain Species

HMSA provides for the humane slaughter of “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock,” such as goats, but not poultry. HMSA § 1902. The Secretary of Agriculture could add poultry to the list of “other livestock” under section 4 if he or she so chose, Levine v. Conner, 540 F.Supp.2d at 1119 (citing 104 Cong. Rec. S15,376 (daily ed. July 29, 1958)), but has thus far declined to do so. In fact, the USDA issued a Federal Register Notice entitled “Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter.” 70 Fed.Reg. 56,624 (Sept. 28, 2005) (“Notice”) to make it clear that HMSA does not require the humane handling and slaughtering of poultry. In the Notice, USDA pointed to the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) (21 U.S.C. §§ 451 et seq.) as promoting humane slaughter, stating that poultry must be handled “in a manner that is consistent with good commercial practices, which means they should be treated humanely.” Notice at 56,624. However, PPIA contains no specific requirement to treat poultry humanely. PPIA also exempts people slaughtering, processing, or transporting their own poultry for their own use, 21 U.S.C.A. § 464(c)(1)(A), and people slaughtering poultry according to recognized religious dietary laws. Id. at § 464(a)(3). Because “there is no specific federal humane handling and slaughter statute for poultry,” Notice at 56,625, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other birds may be “shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut” while being fully cognizant of pain. See Jonathan R. Lovvorn, Animal Law in Action: The Law, Public Perception, and the Limits of Animal Rights as a Basis for Legal Reform, 12 Animal L. 133, 137-38 (2005).

B. Ritual Slaughter Exemption

In addition to poultry, animals killed in ritual slaughter are exempted from HMSA. To avoid a possible unconstitutional impingement on the practice of religion under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, HMSA states that none of its provisions “shall be construed to prohibit, abridge, or in any way hinder the religious freedom of any person or group.” HMSA § 1906; see also Jones v. Butz, 374 F.Supp. 1284 (D.C.N.Y. 1974), affirmed Iowa Beef Processors, Inc. v. United States, 95 S.Ct. 22 (1974). By HMSA’s terms, handling and slaughter in accordance with religious requirements are humane if “the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument.” HMSA § 1902(b). As a result, a conscious animal may be shackled, hoisted, and have its throat cut if done in observation of religious practices.

C. Lack of an Enforcement Mechanism

Finally, HMSA may provide for the enforcement of regulations regarding non-ambulatory livestock, but it lacks a general enforcement provision. Levine v. Vilsack, 587 F.3d at 993. Originally, § 1903 had acted as an enforcement mechanism by prohibiting the federal government from purchasing livestock products made from animals slaughtered inhumanely, but it was repealed in 1978. Levine v. Vilsack 587 F.3d at 992. Despite the lack of an enforcement statute, inspectors can enforce the regulations by leveraging their authority to halt operations. For example, if “an inspector observes an incident of inhumane slaughter or handling in connection with slaughter,” and the operator fails to take appropriate action to remedy the situation, the inspector may attach a “U.S. Rejected” tag to equipment, alleyways, or the stunning area. 9 C.F.R. § 313.50, § 313.50(a)-(c). By doing this, the inspector effectively forces operations to a standstill because rejected equipment, alleyways, pens, and stunning areas may not be used until the inspector is satisfied there will not be a recurrence and removes the tag. Id. at § 313.50(a)-(c). Unfortunately, the lack of enforcement of HMSA and inaccessibility of slaughterhouses to the general public make it difficult to establish HMSA’s effectiveness. David J. Wolfson, Beyond the Law:  Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animals Raised for Food or Food Production, 2 Animal L. 123, 126 (1996).



HMSA was intended to prevent needless suffering by requiring that livestock be treated humanely during slaughtering operations. Before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut, livestock animals must be rendered insensible to pain by being gassed with carbon dioxide, electrocuted, or shot in the head with a firearm or captive bolt stunner. HMSA has its limits, however. For example, it applies to cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and goats, but not birds or animals killed in ritual slaughter. HMSA also lacks a general enforcement provision, but inspectors may enforce the regulations by halting operations. The regulations concerning nonambulatory livestock are enforced, however, and violations may result in criminal and civil penalties, such as fines and imprisonment.


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