The inadequate, haphazard oversight by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) of the treatment of chickens and turkeys at slaughterhouses has resulted in the widespread mistreatment and suffering of birds at some of the nation’s largest plants, with no real consequences for the meat companies, according to new research released on Friday by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
AWI’s report reviews USDA inspection records from 2017 through 2019 at approximately 300 federally inspected turkey and chicken slaughter plants, which kill the vast majority of the 9.6 billion birds butchered every year for their meat.
The USDA has gradually increased the number of handling records issued for noncompliance with ‘good commercial practices’ (GCP) at chicken and turkey slaughter plants over the past 14 years. However, during the recent three-year period, inspectors took action to stop the abuse of birds in only 14% of the documented incidents.
Although the slaughter of birds is currently governed by the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, not one single USDA regulation requires that individual birds be handled ‘humanely.’ As a result, inspectors are prevented from taking any enforcement action for most GCP violations.
Sixteen bird slaughter plants were cited for 20 or more ‘humane’ handling violations, yet the USDA only issued ‘Letters of Concern’ to Pilgrim’s Pride in Nacogdoches, Texas, and Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for egregious or repeat handling problems, according to documents obtained by AWI through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Absent real accountability, industry leaders have no incentive to alter their behavior and treat birds more humanely,” Dena Jones, Farm Animal Program Director for AWI, said in a statement. “It is clear that the USDA is not serious about preventing mistreatment of birds at slaughter; the department’s GCP oversight program, which it created in 2005 in response to public and congressional outcry over bird mistreatment, is purely voluntary.”
Between 2017 and 2019, the most commonly cited “humane” handling problems at turkey and chicken slaughter plants involved birds drowning in scald tanks and the improper disposal of live birds, including burying them alive under piles of dead birds. Incidents affecting the largest number of birds involved high dead-on-arrival rates due to suffocationor prolonged exposure to extreme weather, as well as mechanical problems resulting in injury and death. For example, records showed that multiple birds had their legs ripped off or were disemboweled while conscious due to malfunctioning equipment.
Similarly, video footage obtained by animal advocacy undercover investigations has revealed that, even under the GCP program, the abuse of birds is still common practice at some slaughter plants, where workers have been observed throwing, kicking, and punching birds on numerous occasions.
In August, AWI and Farm Sanctuary sued the USDA for failing to require “humane” handling of birds at slaughter. The lawsuit is still pending.
AWI’s recent investigation, which updates its 2017 report on this issue, found that the following turkey and chicken slaughter plants received the most GCP citations from 2017 through 2019: Allen Harim Foods in Harbeson, DE (56); Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg, MS (49); Perdue Foods in Lewiston, NC (37); Moroni Turkey Processing (Pitman Farms) in Moroni, UT (35); and the former Simply Essentials Poultry in Charles City, IA (34).
Among the report’s recommendations:
The USDA should promulgate regulations requiring the “humane” handling of birds by addressing worker training, transportation, and holding conditions, the shackling of birds, the treatment of sick and injured birds, and more.
The department should proactively post online records related to noncompliance, and refer incidents involving intentional abuse for prosecution under state animal cruelty laws.
“Industry leaders and the USDA continue to promote a false narrative that there is robust federal enforcement of “humane” handling of birds at slaughter,” Jones said. “It is incumbent upon the next administration and Congress to put an end to this egregious cruelty.”
WAN and Peace 4 Animals looks forward to a compassionate plant-based future which no longer includes killing animals for their meat.
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Today, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Farm Sanctuary sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in federal court for failing to require “humane“ handling of chickens at slaughter, resulting in adulterated (i.e., damaged or contaminated) meat that violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York by Harvard Law School’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which is representing the plaintiff organizations. It calls on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to develop regulations governing the handling of chickens, turkeys, and other birds at federally inspected slaughter facilities to address the systematic mistreatment of these animals, which can compromise food safety and meat quality.
“Each year, 9 billion chickens and turkeys are slaughtered in the United States, yet the USDA does virtually nothing to prevent pain and suffering of the birds at slaughter,” said Dena Jones, farm animal program director for AWI in a statement.
Periodic reviews of USDA enforcement records by AWI reveal that, every year, government inspectors document tens of thousands of birds suffering excruciating deaths before they even reach the slaughter line. Thousands of birds die, sometimes in a single incident, from causes that are unacceptable under the PPIA. Birds in slaughter plants were also subjected to intentional acts of cruelty by workers, including being kicked, hit, mutilated, driven over, or dumped onto conveyor belts with visibly broken legs and wings.
Sadly, these reported incidents barely scratch the surface, given that USDA inspectors observe the handling of only a very small percentage of the birds slaughtered. Inspectors at one-third of all poultry plants, in fact, generated no humane handling records whatsoever during a recent three-year period.
As it stands, the industry is able to forego humane handling practices with little, if any, consequences. Currently, the only action USDA inspectors can take when they observe mistreatment of birds is to issue a memorandum describing the incident. Even when establishments engage in repeated or intentional acts, the USDA does nothing to stop it. The USDA is aware that its failure to require humane handling of birds at slaughter results in the adulteration of millions of bird carcasses annually, but the department turns a blind eye.
In one case, nearly 10,000 birds froze to death after being transported and held for at least 22 hours in unprotected trucks during extreme cold at a Butterfield Foods slaughterhouse in Minnesota. In another incident, a Jennie-O slaughter plant in Minnesota was cited 10 times in just four months when birds were seriously injured by malfunctioning equipment that caused large areas of their skin to be torn, resulting in hemorrhaging and muscle damage. The Southern Hens facility in Mississippi was cited 10 times in less than a month because workers were tossing crates with live birds inside.
This widespread abuse of birds at slaughter could be prevented if the USDA adopted humane handling regulations. In 2013, AWI and Farm Sanctuary petitioned the FSIS to use the authority granted to it by Congress to codify chicken handling standards into enforceable regulations.
After a six-year delay, during which time federal inspectors documented more than 1,000 incidents of chicken mistreatment, the FSIS denied the petition. At the same time, it denied a second petition from AWI asking the agency to address the problem of birds being abandoned for extended periods in the holding areas of slaughter plants — often in extreme heat or cold.
Despite the USDA’s own evidence identifying the mistreatment of birds as a cause of adulterated chicken products, the FSIS claimed it had no jurisdiction to enforce humane handling of birds at slaughter, and maintained that the current approach of voluntary compliance is adequate.
“Chickens and other birds suffer egregious cruelty at U.S. slaughterhouses,” said Gene Baur, President and Co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. “The USDA has failed to provide basic humane consideration, allowing callous abuse and irresponsible killing methods that threaten our health and humanity, and are outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in a society that purports to care about compassion.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Katherine Meyer, Director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, with the assistance of several law students who helped draft the complaint.
Please remember that the best thing we all can do to end the suffering of chickens, turkeys, and other animals is to simply leave them off our plates.
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