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By Dena Jones |
April 7, 2015
People are often shocked to learn how little government oversight exists
surrounding the way animals are slaughtered in the United States.
There are only about 148 (full-time equivalent) humane slaughter inspectors for
the 148 million cows, pigs and sheep slaughtered every year at federally
according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That's the
equivalent of just ONE humane slaughter inspector for every ONE MILLION animals.
But as bad as the situation is for "livestock," it is far, far worse -- 200
times worse, in fact -- for birds. USDA does not report time spent monitoring the
treatment of birds at slaughter establishments, but my back-of-the-envelope
calculation arrives at an estimation of ONE humane slaughter inspector for every
TWO HUNDRED MILLION birds. And I was generous, assuming that every poultry plant
monitors bird handling during every shift, which we are quite certain doesn't
Why is government oversight so much weaker for birds? Because birds, which
represent 98 percent of animals killed for food (fish excluded), are not covered
the federal humane slaughter law. Last decade, undercover investigations at
poultry slaughter plants exposed egregious, intentional animal cruelty. Under
pressure by Congress and the public to do something,
USDA published a notice encouraging the poultry industry to adhere to "Good
Commercial Practices" (GCP) for bird handling. The operative word here is
"encouraging" because compliance with these practices, which USDA defined as the
poultry industry's own minimal animal handling guidelines, is completely
USDA has not codified these bird-handling requirements in regulation. As a
result, poultry plants suffer no consequences from the abuse of birds -- even
when done intentionally. There are no fines, no slowing or stopping of the
slaughter line, and no shutting down of a plant with egregious or repeated
violations. The only form of animal suffering at slaughter covered by regulation
is birds drowning in the scalding tank (birds should be dead before they are
immersed in the tank, a procedure to facilitate feather removal). And even in
those instances, a regulatory control action is not taken if a single bird is
scalded to death; it requires multiple live birds entering the scald tank,
signifying that the system "is out of control,," before something is done.
Monitoring of GCP is hit and miss at U.S. poultry plants. The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), with
another advocacy organization, Farm
Sanctuary,, has been reviewing records related to USDA's audits of GCP since
its monitoring began nearly a decade ago. We found that inspectors produced no
reports related to humane handling at about half of the nation's 300 federally
inspected plants in that span of time, during which 50 to 100 billion birds were
Even the most conscientious, well-meaning inspector can do very little when
mishandling of birds occurs. Their only recourse is to prepare what is referred
to as a "Memorandum of Interview" (MOI), which is basically just a reminder that
the plant should not do whatever it was that the inspector caught them doing.
Some plants are issued dozens of these MOIs in a year for abusive acts such as
throwing live birds, burying live birds in piles of dead birds, allowing birds
to freeze to death in their cages, or breaking birds' legs by violently slamming
them into shackles. In certain plants, these
incidents occur again and again & and will continue to occur until there are
real consequences for this sort of behavior.
an investigation by The Humane Society of the United States at a slaughter
plant in Minnesota uncovered acts of animal cruelty, including workers throwing
sick and injured birds against the wall or tossing them into the trash, and
workers jabbing birds with metal hooks to remove them from their cages.
Another recent investigation by
the advocacy group Mercy for Animals (MFA) documented excessive use of force in
shackling birds and the drowning of birds in the scald tank at a North Carolina
slaughterhouse. Neither of these plants had a history of being written up by
The MFA investigation caught the attention of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
In his op-ed, "To Kill a Chicken," K Kristof observed, pointing to the lack of
federal rules to ensure humane slaughter of birds: "If you torture a single
chicken and are caught, you're likely to be arrested. If you scald thousands of
chickens alive, you're an industrialist who will be lauded for your acumen."
The editorial board of
USA Today has also weighed in, supporting greater protections for birds at
In its opposing view, t, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association offered the
specious claim that USDA inspectors "can take enforcement action for
mistreatment if spotted," and therefore more government regulation is not
needed. It is simply not true that USDA inspectors can take enforcement action
for mistreatment, other than multiple live birds entering the scald tank.
While the preferred solution is to cover birds under the humane slaughter law, a
simpler (albeit less comprehensive) approach would be for USDA to regulate the
handling of birds based on its authority to ensure the wholesomeness of poultry
products. Then USDA inspectors could take regulatory control actions (such as
shutting down a slaughter line) when serious violations are observed. A
rulemaking petition requesting this change was submitted in December 2013,
and since then more than 239,000 citizens have signed a
Change.org petition to to USDA encouraging it to grant the proposal.
But USDA tends not to require animal agriculture to do anything it does not want
to do. Even though the poultry industry claims it already meets animal welfare
standards, it does not support placing them in regulation. The industry likes
the status quo just fine, answering any complaints of abusive treatment by
claiming bird handling is overseen by USDA and deflecting blame and
responsibility to the department. The industry gives the outward impression that
humane handling is being regulated -- well aware that it is not.
And so, the suffering of birds at slaughter continues.