Group: Change rules on rabbits

It seeks humane slaughter policy

A Los Angeles-based animal welfare group Tuesday called on federal agriculture officials to require that rabbits get the same humane slaughter rules used for cattle and other livestock after the group released an undercover video taken at a processing plant in Rogers late last year.

Adam Wilson, director of investigations for Last Chance for Animals, said the video showed workers at the Pel-Freez Arkansas LLC plant routinely breaking the rear legs of rabbits and then improperly stunning the animals before decapitating them at the start of processing.

"We are urging the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to reclassify rabbits so the humane slaughter act applies to them," Wilson said after airing the video taken inside the Pel-Freez plant at a Little Rock news conference.

Last Chance for Animals, which describes itself as opposing the use of animals for food or clothing, uses education, investigation and legislation to eliminate "animal exploitation," according to its website.

Wilson also said the group asked Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith to file animal cruelty charges against those working at the plant, citing what it called 323 instances where rabbits were conscious at the time of slaughter and another 193 where rabbits experienced pain and distress in the presence of plant supervisors and, sometimes, USDA inspectors.

The prosecutor declined, saying that after consulting with federal officials, the methods used at the plant were "common practice" and no one knowingly violated state animal cruelty statutes, Wilson said.

On its website, Pel-Freez, founded in 1911, describes itself as the country's "oldest and largest producer of domestic rabbit," as well as "the only USDA approved, Grade A supplier for rabbit meat."

Regina Stowe, foods division manager for Pel-Freez, said the company was aware of the complaint made to the Benton County prosecutor. However, she said, the company is following current USDA rules and industry standards for its slaughter operations. The company processes between 3,000 and 6,000 rabbits per week.

"If the USDA came out with different slaughter standards for us, we would comply with whatever standard they come up with," Stowe said.

In addition to providing meat, the company sells rabbit blood and tissue used by laboratories.

Alexandra Tarrant, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, confirmed that rabbits aren't regulated under the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Tarrant said the service first got reports from Last Chance for Animals in December.

"We had veterinarians in the plant. They didn't find any regulatory noncompliance," Tarrant said.

The act requires that processors use "humane methods" to render livestock such as cattle, horses, sheep, swine, goats and mules "insensible to pain" by a single blow, gunshot, electrical or chemical means before the animal is "shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut."

Instead, rabbits meant for human consumption are subject to voluntary USDA inspections for "wholesomeness," which is done at the Pel-Freez plant.

She said rabbit slaughter falls under "Good Commercial Practice" policies, which are also used for poultry. Producers are expected to use humane practices, she said, such as handling birds in a way that doesn't cause undue stress.

Smith, the Benton County prosecutor, said he looked at the video and, after talking with company officials and reviewing reports, didn't find any conduct that violated Arkansas' animal cruelty law.

"It's legal to kill rabbits. Nobody likes to see sausage made," Smith said. "Because the employees are employed to kill rabbits, and they're in fact killing those rabbits, there's no evidence I've seen that they are intentionally and knowingly doing that for torture."

The process doesn't violate the law because workers do not possess the relevant criminal intent required under the law to inflict pain as they work, he said.

Smith said Last Chance for Animal's policy goals appear to favor vegetarianism and are anti-slaughterhouse, aims that he said are better addressed through legislation than prosecution.

The use of undercover video and audio recordings to detect cruelty in animal operations has led several states to pass legislation limiting such practices. In Arkansas, legislation offered in 2013 making it a misdemeanor offense to interfere with a poultry or livestock operation by covertly recording sound or images died in committee.

Business on 05/06/2015

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