Friday, January 11, 2013

Backyard Slaughter: The New NIMBY?

Considering the state of industrial agriculture, there’s not much to dislike about the locavore food movement.  However, as Nicole Civita explained in her excellent post about regulating the sale of home-grown foods, the movement is not without its own legal and policy challenges.  Add animals to the mix, and things get even more complicated.  This is particularly so when animals are raised specifically for slaughter and consumption. 

The slaughter of animals for food has received much-deserved media attention lately, and we can expect to hear more about domestic horse slaughter and the handling and slaughter of downed livestock.  Here’s another term for your repertoire:  backyard slaughter.  Raising and slaughtering one’s own animals has officially reached hipster status, thanks in part to the popularity of backyard chickens (Oprah! Martha!) and Mark Zuckerberg’s year-long vow not to eat meat from animals he hasn’t personally slaughtered (a vow he allegedly kept, but that year's over).  Although backyard slaughter has been used to describe a range of animal-slaughter activities, its most appropriate application is to slaughter that is exempt from federal and/or state inspection programs.  This includes both smaller custom slaughter facilities and the do-it-yourself (DIY) animal owners.
 
For those of you unfamiliar with agricultural slaughter regulations, it helps to begin with the federal law’s distinction between meat derived from “livestock” (i.e., cattle, horses, hogs, goats, and sheep) and meat derived from “poultry” (i.e., chicken, geese, and ducks).  The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), respectively, authorize the USDA to regulate slaughter and processing of livestock and poultry birds for use in food sold in interstate commerce.  These federally-inspected facilities (or "FI facilities") are subject to USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) programs and regulations, including on-site inspections.  The most relevant distinction between the FMIA and PPIA is that only the FMIA attempts to set a “humane” standard for slaughter.  Whereas the FMIA requires that livestock animals be “rendered insensible to pain” prior to slaughter (stunned), there is no such federal regulation for poultry slaughter. 

Slaughter and processing facilities operating only in intrastate commerce must comply with state regulations that are “at least equal to” federal regulations.  If the state doesn’t have its own meat inspection program (and only half of the states do), even intrastate-only facilities must pass USDA inspection for compliance with food safety and federal Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines.  In livestock slaughterhouses, this same inspector is expected to check for adherence to USDA humane slaughter regulations. 

That leaves the smaller “custom exempt” slaughter facilities, which are not required to maintain onsite inspection but are expected to comply with federal food safety regulations.  FMIA’s Custom Exemption applies to operations that either 1) slaughter animals exclusively for “household use”; or 2) slaughter animals who have already been purchased “on the hoof.”  In this latter arrangement, a customer purchases 1/4, 1/2, or an entire live animal from a processor who slaughters the animal for the customer at a fee.  In this “freezer meat” exemption, the live animal is never in the customer’s possession.  In both exemptions, federal regulations prohibit the meat from being resold, and require that it be labeled accordingly. 

Depending on their location, custom exempt facility operators may be entirely exempt from animal welfare laws, as well.  Some states have their own humane slaughter laws to mirror the federal law, but most of these laws exempt slaughter for “household use.”  The PPIA’s custom exemption guidelines for poultry slaughter and processing are less stringent.  However, only a small handful of states have humane slaughter laws that could be construed to apply to poultry birds.  (For a summary of these state laws and a review of various common slaughter methods, see Jeff Welty’s Humane Slaughter Laws).

Nearly all of the animals slaughtered for meat in the U.S. pass through FI facilities:  98% of the cattle, 99% of the hogs; nearly 100% of the poultry, and 88% of the lamb and sheep (2010 statistics).  Although there are far more non-FI slaughterhouses than FI slaughterhouses, a small handful of FI plants slaughter more than half the meat sold in the U.S.  To use livestock slaughter as an example, although there are approximately 800 FI facilities compared to 1,900 non-FI facilities, less than .02% of the FI facilities (~14) slaughter 55% of the total cattle slaughtered for food.  Similar percentages apply for hog, calf, and sheep slaughter.  

All of this is to say that the number of animals slaughtered in “custom exempt,” or backyard slaughter facilities, pale in comparison overall.  However, as the USDA recognizes, demand for locally-sourced meat is on the rise.  So too is the popularity of DIY backyard slaughter, local “slaughter farms,” and mobile slaughter units (MSUs), which bring the slaughter to the animal owner.  Still, access to legal slaughter remains the bottleneck of the local meats industry.  Encouraged by inadequate state inspection efforts, enterprising outlaws (some allegedly linked to organized crime) have created a cottage industry for illegal animal slaughter. 

Southern and coastal Florida has been riddled with underground animal slaughter businesses operating outside of the food safety, environmental, labor, or animal welfare regulations.  Undercover videos have documented habitual, cruel animal treatment in black market slaughter farms in Tampa Bay and Hialeah, Florida (yes, that one, of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah fame).  Although the USDA and local prosecutors have moved to close down some of these illegal operations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is assisting some fed-up local residents in filing a public nuisance suit against one prominent slaughter farm owner who has eluded prosecution.  

ALDF defines these operations as backyard slaughter facilities, but I think it’s a mistake to group these criminal enterprises with boutique slaughter operations and DIY farmers, even the hipsters who lack sufficient attention span for basic animal husbandry.  Although the difference in animal suffering may be only one of scale, the remedies should account for the slaughters’ intent.  Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter, for example, urges that too many backyard practitioners lack the basic training to prevent unnecessary and prolonged suffering of animals they slaughter.  Yet this concern would seem to support training for DIY urban farmers, just as subsistence farmers have always had to learn proper animal husbandry skills. 

Not that I don’t think it’s a problem.  To wit, a California man was arrested for animal cruelty recently when he tried, unsuccessfully, to kill one of his hogs with a hammer to the head.  A woman who lived with him insisted that animal cruelty had nothing to do with it:  “We just didn't know how to kill the pig, that's all it was.”  California is one of the only states where that defense may not fly.  Of the few states with humane slaughter laws, most of them don’t apply to slaughter for “household” (non-retail) use.  And although every state has an animal cruelty law, most of these laws either exempt “standard agricultural practices” or fail to protect farmed animals altogether. 

This illustrates a point I repeat often in my animal law classes:  legal protections for animals are based solely on how or why humans interact with them, irrespective of an animal’s capabilities or emotional capacities.  In other words, you may not beat your dog with a hammer, but you might be permitted to beat your pig—so long as you’re doing it to facilitate dinner.

Other reasons offered for opposing backyard slaughter are more aesthetic:  it disturbs the neighbors and lowers property values.  Worse, writes James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University who has launched a one-man campaign against DIY animal slaughter, it desensitizes people to the suffering of other living beings.  Writing for The Atlantic, McWilliams asked:  “How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals?”  This challenge conveniently disregards the 3 to 4 million unwanted dogs and cats we euthanize each year.  Many of these “sentient animals” are rendered for animal feed, an inconvenient truth documented by Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals

Considering that industrial slaughter methods in the U.S. are indefensibly inhumane, isn’t nearly any alternative an improvement?  Perhaps.  To be candid, I’m still forming an opinion about the DIY slaughter movement.  However, I agree with McWilliams on this point:  too many urban and suburban animal farmers fail to adequately provide for their animals’ sizes and behavioral needs.  My neighbors demonstrate this point well.  Their hip new chicken coop has lovely nesting boxes and a cute little ramp for their 5 chickens to parade up and down.  Yet despite the expansive size of my neighbors’ fenced-in back yard, the coop’s “yard” can’t be more than 5 feet by 3 feet. 

I’m no chicken, but that doesn’t sound “free range” to me.  We can do better.


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