Accelerating chicken slaughter comes at inhumane cost

In America, we like to believe that bigger and faster are usually better. After all, what’s better for business than reaping bigger and faster profits? But sometimes we pay a terrible price for this obsession with efficiency and nowhere is this more apparent than in America’s chicken farms and slaughterhouses.

On March 17, 68 members of Congress sent a joint letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for the withdrawal of a proposed rule to dramatically change the way chickens and turkeys are inspected and processed in America. In addition to replacing 40 percent of government inspectors with plant employees, the proposal would increase the speed of processing lines by up to 25 percent.

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“While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare,” wrote the congressional members, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “We urge the FSIS [Food Safety Inspection Service] to withdraw the proposed rule until the agency has thoroughly addressed its impact on the public, workers, and animals and adherence to good commercial practices.”

It’s gratifying—and long overdue—to see lawmakers refer to animal welfare as a top concern, but the sad truth is the craven desire for increased speed is nothing new when it comes to the chicken business. Even before arriving at the processing plant, the nearly 9 billion “broiler” chickens” raised for meat each year are selectively bred to grow at a rate three times faster than just 60 years ago. Even at just a few weeks old, they have such massive and disproportionate bodies that they often collapse and lie helplessly in their own waste, and develop sores and infections. (Our campaign “The Truth About Chicken” takes a closer look at this issue).

The processing line speeds proposed by USDA—and supported by the chicken industry—fail to take this enormous growth into account. Since chickens today are larger than ever, their legs often don’t fit easily into the shackles that workers must hang them from on the fast-moving lines. As a result of this and other factors, some birds evade the automated killing blade meant to cut their throats, and instead make it to the end of the line, where they are dropped into scalding water, still alive. Nearly a million slaughterhouse chickens and turkeys died in this horrific way in each of the last five years, according to USDA reports.

As part of their justification, the USDA believes Salmonella rates will fall – albeit by less than 2 percent – as a result of increased efficiency under the proposed rule, but this claim is based on flawed and incomplete data, according to the Government Accountability Office. Furthermore, inspectors report having difficulty properly inspecting chickens because of how large they’ve grown, and have been arguing for slower line speeds for this very reason.

Due to the repetitive nature of their job and intense pressures to keep pace, slaughterhouse workers also suffer as a result of line acceleration. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 42 percent of workers in one poultry plant had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, the Coalition of Poultry Workers and the Southern Poverty Law Center have found hundreds of poultry workers unable to perform basic household tasks due to the pain of their workplace injuries. There are also reports of health risks from exposure to chemical agents which are used frequently–and even more so with increased production speeds–at poultry slaughter plants.

These are unacceptable by-products of a profit-hungry chicken-making machine; it’s unthinkable that the chicken industry and, worse, the USDA have so clearly and inhumanely placed wealth above welfare.

Where are our animal welfare laws in all of this? The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which is focused on the welfare of farm animals during slaughter, does not apply to poultry at all. Instead, USDA inspectors can cite a plant for inhumane handling of poultry under the terms of the relatively weak Poultry Products Inspection Act, which is not specifically welfare-focused.

On behalf of the billions of birds slaughtered for food each year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) asks that this proposal be rescinded for the sake of both people and animals. Given everything we know (not to mention everything we should care about), we need to be moving in the direction of slower and smaller, not faster and bigger. Make no mistake – animals’ lives, worker safety and our humanity are all very much on the line.

Bershadker is the ASPCA president and CEO.