On December 22, 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (through FSIS, the Food Safety and Inspection Service) published some new guidelines about how beef cattle are slaughtered.
Four of the five new regulations are standard government stuff, covering training on humane handling of livestock, procedures for USDA inspectors who encounter “downer” cows, audits from the USDA Office of the Inspector General, and a new channel for FSIS employees to complain about the humane treatment of animals.
But one clause, the second of five, stopped us cold because the Humane Society of the United States is mentioned specifically. Here it is in context:
The Agency is pursuing the following new measures:
[ … ]
(2) Responding to and soliciting comments on petitions from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Farm Sanctuary.
Huh? On first reading, it looked to us like the federal government was writing a rule to give special consideration to any future complaints that come up the federal food-chain from HSUS and one other animal rights group.
Why the special treatment? We didn’t know exactly how to interpret this, and dozens of you have asked us about this in recent weeks. So we thought it would be a good idea to ask the USDA and share what we learned.
“Does this mean FSIS will actually be soliciting the input of HSUS and Farm Sanctuary?” we asked. “How will this play out in the real world? Why do just those two organizations get special dispensation?”
It took a few weeks, but this morning we heard back from someone in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at FSIS. Here’s what she wrote:
We received your inquiry regarding item number two in the December 22, 2010, News Release on humane handling enforcement.
FSIS is responding to petitions it received from HSUS and Farm Sanctuary and will soon publish a Federal Register Notice to ask for public comment on the petitions. The Federal Register Notice will include information on the timeline and process for accepting comments. After the comment period closes, the Agency will review and analyze all comments and then decide the proper course of action.
We are focused on gathering information and comments from the public, industry, the petitioners, and consumer groups to better inform our decisions on these petitions.
Reading between the lines, it looks like our initial concerns were unfounded. It seems HSUS and Farm Sanctuary have already submitted their petitions to the federal government. Which is their right.
So the word “petitions” in the press release refers to what is probably a backlog of existing animal-rights complaints. It doesn’t suggest that the government is jumping through a new set of specialized hoops or giving HSUS any special status.
Which is good news. Whenever the agency gets around to issuing public notices about the procedures for responding to HSUS’s flavor-of-the-month petitions, we’ll let you know so you can weigh in. Which is your right.