Last year nearly nine billion chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other birds were slaughtered in the United States with no requirement that their deaths be humane. Why? Because the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which is supposed to ensure that animals are rendered insensible to pain before being slaughtered, does not cover poultry.
That’s right: The federal law designed to protect food animals from suffering during slaughter excludes a shocking 95% of those animals.
Because of this exclusion, chickens and turkeys are entirely at the mercy of major poultry processors. After six weeks of being reared in dreadfully overcrowded factory-like conditions with breeding and feeding practices that leave many birds unable to walk naturally, they are shipped off to the slaughterhouse. There, at a furious pace, they are grabbed and shackled upside down by their legs on a mechanized line. Still conscious, the birds are then dragged through an electrified water bath designed to immobilize them, passed through a neck-slicer, and dropped into scalding water to loosen their feathers. Due to the speed of the assembly line and their own desperate motions, many chickens evade both the immobilization bath and the neck-slicer and are literally scalded to death.
Federal regulations require that the U.S. Department of Agriculture condemn those poultry carcasses that appear to have died from causes other than neck cutting. In 2003, more than 3.4 million carcasses were condemned by the USDA, meaning these birds died either because they were handled roughly during shackling or because they entered the scalder alive.
A Better Alternative
The HMSA requires that animals covered by the law be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” Clearly, poultry are in need of this protection: These birds feel pain no less than cows or pigs--animals covered by the HMSA.
Fortunately, there are proven and cost-effective ways to render birds insensible to pain prior to moving them through the slaughterhouse. With a procedure called Controlled-Atmosphere Killing that uses gas, poultry can be humanely killed before they’re removed from their transport crates, which reduces the handling of live birds and the potential for abuse. U.S. poultry processors have shown some interest in this approach because of the potential for cost-savings and greater productivity (as fewer birds are lost to bruising and broken bones), but they haven’t yet made the switch. Only one American processing plant currently uses gas stunning.
The industry repeatedly assures the American public that poultry are being treated and killed humanely. Yet the industry has proven incapable of self-regulation; time and time again companies have shown blatant disregard for animal welfare. The horrifying abuses that were exposed in July 2004 at the Pilgrim’s Pride slaughterhouse in West Virginia--in which large numbers of chickens were thrown against walls and stomped by workers--were among the worst known cases of cruelty in the commercial slaughter business.
However, this wasn’t the first outrageous case, and it won’t be the last--unless strong action is taken to change the attitude of the industry and to require new procedures to prevent such abuses. It’s time that the HMSA bring poultry under its protective wing.