The welfare of birds at slaughter is not solely a matter of what happens once they pass through the doors of the slaughter establishment. Abuse and unnecessary suffering can occur before the birds even enter the plant. Through a review of US government records, AWI recently uncovered a grim illustration of this fact: Large numbers of birds are suffering and dying as a result of being abandoned for extended periods of time—often during extreme weather conditions—in the holding areas of slaughter plants.
Examples abound: In June 2015, Tip Top Poultry in Marietta, Georgia, rejected the advice of inspection personnel not to leave six truckloads of birds outside its plant over the weekend, in extreme heat and without food or water. Two months later, the same establishment left four trucks of birds over the weekend, again in extreme heat and without food or water, again after being cautioned by inspection personnel not to abandon the birds.
In another case, in February 2014, Southern Hens in Moselle, Mississippi, subjected thousands of birds to subfreezing temperatures while they were held at the plant for up to four days. In January 2014, Simmons Custom Processing in Jay, Oklahoma, held birds at the plant for two days during subfreezing temperatures, resulting in at least 7,300 dead-on-arrival birds.
US Department of Agriculture inspectors currently do not have the regulatory authority to order plants not to hold birds beyond a reasonable period. Inspection personnel also currently lack the regulatory authority to cite slaughter establishments for instances where birds have been abandoned and suffered or died as a result. Under current regulation and policy, inspectors’ only recourse is to advise plants not to abandon birds and to issue a document referred to as a “Memorandum of Interview” in the event that a plant fails to take the inspector’s advice and deaths other than by slaughter occur.
AWI has requested that the USDA revise its regulations to prohibit behavior with the potential to cause birds to die other than by slaughter, which according to the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) is a form of adulteration. The PPIA gives the USDA the responsibility of preventing the sale of adulterated poultry products, and expressly states that the department has authority to write rules and regulations to prevent adulteration. Such a regulation would allow inspection personnel to take action to prevent or respond to acts of intentional animal neglect or cruelty—be it abandoning birds or physically abusing birds—as these acts increase adulteration.
The USDA should also revise its directive on ante-mortem poultry inspection to include actions that inspection personnel may take in situations of suspected animal neglect or cruelty. In these cases, the USDA has an ethical responsibility to contact appropriate state officials to inform them that the department believes animal neglect or cruelty may have occurred, and the situation should be investigated for potential prosecution under the state anti-cruelty law.
Abandoning birds in extreme weather conditions without food or water represents intentional animal cruelty. The USDA must take action to prevent similar incidents in the future, and it can accomplish this by revising its poultry slaughter regulations and directives.