AWI Proposes Slaughter Reforms to Help Protect Poultry and Public Health

Food poisoning. We’ve all experienced it. A few hours after enjoying a meal, you suddenly find yourself vomiting—or worse. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illnesses send an estimated 128,000 Americans to the hospital and cause about 3,000 deaths.

photo by afishman64
photo by afishman64

A major culprit in foodborne illnesses is the bacteria Salmonella. And a major contributor to Salmonella illness is poultry—particularly chicken. In fact, when government-sponsored researchers tested thousands of packages of uncooked chicken from grocery stores in 2019, they found about 1 in 6 contaminated with the pathogen.

The US Department of Agriculture does not require raw poultry products to be free of Salmonella. To avoid food poisoning, consumers are expected to cook poultry at temperatures sufficient to kill off pathogens and to avoid cross-contamination through inadvertent touching of other food or food prep surfaces after touching raw chicken or turkey. Given this, it is no surprise that nearly one quarter of the approximately 1.35 million human Salmonella infections in the United States each year are attributable to poultry consumption.

In recent years, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has implemented policies to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in poultry products. However, the annual number of Salmonella-caused illnesses has remained about the same. In a renewed effort to reduce infections, the agency has outlined a potential new initiative that would enhance testing and monitoring of Salmonella during the poultry slaughter process and set an enforceable Salmonella standard for final products.

AWI supports the initiative and appreciates the FSIS’s work to develop it. However, the proposal fails to consider an important factor that contributes to Salmonella illness in humans: the frequent mistreatment of birds during the slaughter process. Through a variety of mechanisms, the stress and injuries that birds endure can increase the risk of infection and contamination of live poultry, processing equipment, and carcasses. This, in turn, can increase the likelihood that Salmonella will be present in raw poultry products, putting consumers at greater risk.

In extensive comments submitted on the proposal, AWI urged the USDA to consider adopting four policies related to the slaughter of poultry that we believe would both improve the welfare of the birds and reduce the risk of Salmonella poisoning in humans. 

First, the FSIS should require that poultry spend as little time as possible—and no more than four hours—in holding areas awaiting slaughter. Birds trucked to slaughter are typically crammed into crowded transport crates. Upon arrival, they may remain in these cages for hours or even days without food or water, until the plant is ready to process them. During that time, the birds—under extreme stress—continuously brush and flap against each other, defecate on one another, and peck hungrily at litter and feces on the crate floor. Feathers, dust, litter, and feces can all harbor Salmonella, and high stress levels render birds even more susceptible to infection. That means that the longer the birds remain in holding, the greater the risk of infection or contamination. In fact, a University of Montreal study (Arsenault et al., 2007) found that waiting in crates at the plant for four or more hours increased the proportion of Salmonella-positive carcasses. Minimizing holding times would therefore improve conditions for the animals and help reduce the number of Salmonella-contaminated products that reach consumers.

Second, the USDA should require that poultry in holding areas be protected from severe environmental conditions. All too often, poultry awaiting slaughter endure extreme heat, cold, and lack of ventilation. According to publicly available records, hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds have been found dead in unventilated holding areas on 90-degree days, or frozen to the sides of transport crates in below-zero conditions. For birds that survive, heat stress increases their susceptibility to Salmonella infection, and cold stress can increase the amount of Salmonella shed in feces (which other birds may consume). Thus, protecting birds from the elements not only would improve their welfare, but also could reduce their susceptibility to Salmonella infection and contamination.

Third, the USDA should require that poultry be moved and handled, and equipment be maintained and operated, in a manner that minimizes stress, bruises, broken bones, dislocations, and other injuries. Every year at slaughter facilities across the country, hundreds of incidents involving equipment malfunction 
and/or improper treatment of birds result in severe injuries. These injuries can promote Salmonella infection by raising stress levels and increasing the risk that Salmonella bacteria in a bird’s intestines will be transported to muscle (the part we eat) via the bloodstream. Also, Salmonella bacteria can survive and replicate far more easily in bruises than in healthy tissues, and small bruises are not removed from carcasses during processing.

Finally, the USDA should require that electrical stun baths used to render poultry unconscious prior to slaughter be designed and operated in a way that prevents pre-stun shocks. At the start of the slaughter process, poultry are shackled upside down to an overhead conveyor system. This “kill line” then carries the birds to electrified troughs of water, where their heads are dunked into or dragged through the water in order to stun and immobilize them for the slaughter knife. But sometimes another body part, such as a wing, will contact the water first, resulting in a severely painful shock that may cause the bird to flap, struggle, and defecate. If the bird is contaminated or infected with Salmonella, this panicked reaction can contaminate the water and neighboring birds on the kill line. Requiring that water baths be designed to ensure that the water does not overflow at the entrance, and that shackle lines descend quickly enough toward the bath to avoid delivering a pre-stun shock, would improve bird welfare and help mitigate the spread of Salmonella bacteria. 

Of course, even if implemented, these measures would not end the appalling suffering endured by poultry in slaughter plants, nor eliminate the risk of food poisoning as a result of consuming contaminated poultry products. The best way to protect yourself, and birds, is to avoid consuming poultry products altogether. But these recommendations represent reasonable, practical measures that the FSIS should adopt as a meaningful first step toward improving poultry welfare while protecting public health.