Custom-exempt slaughterhouses are keeping animals in deplorable conditions, beating them, and depriving them of food and water for extended periods in violation of federal law, according to an analysis of federal documents by nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

Slaughterhouses that process animals for commercial sale — such as through grocery stores — are required to have continuous inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and federal law requires a government official to be present on-site when the animals are slaughtered to ensure that facilities are meeting the minimum standards of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (or HMSA, although the act itself is a misnomer, as Lady Freethinker and other welfare nonprofits assert there is no such thing as “humane” slaughter).

But federal law grants an exemption to slaughterhouses that cater to people who want animals made into products but not for commercial use — such as hunters who want their kills processed or other people who want animals turned into meat for themselves, their household, or nonpaying guests.

The USDA excuses these “custom-exempt” facilities from continuous federal inspection, including when animals are slaughtered, but still requires the facilities to meet the minimum standards in the HMSA.

Despite that directive, an AWI analysis of two years of federal inspection reports, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, found that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) isn’t following through on enforcing mandated slaughter conditions “in any meaningful way,” according to a press release.

The analysis determined animals at custom-exempt establishments were “at high risk for inhumane treatment.”

“AWI is unfortunately accustomed to uncovering and witnessing the most egregious forms of animal abuse; the treatment of custom slaughtered farm animals surely ranks among the worst,” said Dena Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director. “Moreover, while custom-exempt slaughterhouses are expected to follow federal food safety regulations, inspectors do not routinely observe that they comply with them.”

In recent years, several attempts have been made in Congress and state legislatures to allow meat from animals killed at custom-exempt slaughterhouses to be sold in retail outlets, such as restaurants and grocery stores, AWI told Lady Freethinker.

The investigation prompted AWI to file a legal petition urging the USDA to require stricter animal welfare practices, annual inspections when slaughter is happening, and that neglect and abuse be reported under state animal cruelty laws at custom-exempt slaughterhouses.

Lady Freethinker stands with AWI as they demand stronger animal welfare practices, and we encourage anyone who witnesses animal abuse in farmed animal settings to report what they see to a confidential hotline, 1-800-65-FARM-TIPS.