AWI Seeks Animal Welfare Measures in 2023 Farm Bill

The 118th Congress is gearing up to tackle the Farm Bill, a massive omnibus bill that must be reauthorized every five years or so and is a key driver of food and agriculture policy in the United States. The current version is set to expire in September, putting immense pressure on Congress to finalize a new version before then. As negotiations continue, AWI is pushing for inclusion of the following measures to improve the welfare of farmed animals: 

Protecting farmed animals from extreme weather
Each year, hundreds of thousands to millions of farmed animals suffer terrible deaths during extreme weather events. Congress and the US Department of Agriculture have created various disaster assistance programs over the years—including the Emergency Loan Program and Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP)—to compensate producers for such losses. Under LIP alone, over $500 million has been distributed to farmers and ranchers since 2008. Despite the large price tag associated with these programs, farmers are not required to demonstrate that they took any steps to protect their animals from extreme weather before receiving compensation. The Emergency and Disaster Preparedness for Farm Animals Act, recently introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), would reform these programs by requiring producers to have disaster preparedness plans in place in order to receive federal assistance for the loss of farmed animals during extreme weather events. 

Prohibiting inhumane methods of depopulation
As avian influenza continues to wreak havoc across the country, the number of birds that have been depopulated (killed en masse) is nearing 60 million since the start of the outbreak. Unfortunately, ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+)—a horrific depopulation method that involves inducing heatstroke over several agonizing hours—is widely used despite resounding denunciations of it from many veterinarians and animal welfare advocates. Of the 57 million+ birds depopulated in 2022, at least 44 million were killed at locations where VSD+ was used, either alone or in combination with another method. To make matters worse, taxpayers foot the bill for a majority of these brutal mass killings, as producers are able to apply for compensation to cover their losses and depopulation expenses. 

While there has been much greater focus on the use of VSD+ during the influenza outbreak, this method was also used to kill healthy poultry and pigs during supply chain disruptions prompted by COVID 19–related slaughterhouse closures. During this crisis, the National Pork Board also funded studies looking at sodium nitrite poisoning as a potential depopulation method for pigs. The research found that this method causes prolonged respiratory distress and other adverse reactions such as vomiting, retching, and vocalization, with times to death ranging from 31 minutes to nearly three hours and only 50 to 80 percent of the animals killed. 

Given the significant welfare concerns associated with these methods, AWI is urging Congress to prohibit the use of federal funds to cover any costs associated with their use and to facilitate the use of more humane, “preferred” methods by (1) requiring producers to have contingency plans in place for the humane depopulation of animals in order to receive aid under compensation programs and (2) allocating funds to ensure access to more humane depopulation methods through the National Veterinary Stockpile. 

Protecting farmed animals during transport
Transport can be very stressful for animals, as they are subjected to increased handling, temperature extremes, and long journeys involving food and water deprivation and overcrowding. High-risk groups, such as very young animals and those debilitated and slated for culling, are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of transport. Unfortunately, there are no federal laws requiring that animals subjected to long journeys be fit and healthy enough to withstand such journeys. As a result, according to AWI research, tens of thousands of calves under one month of age are regularly shipped long distances despite being at high risk of injury, infection, and mortality due to the stress associated with transport.

photo by M. Perfectti
photo by M. Perfectti

Absent federal requirements that address fitness for travel and other transport conditions, the only source of protection for farmed animals in transit is the Twenty-Eight Hour Law. This law requires animals to be offloaded for food, water, and rest if traveling for 28 hours or more. Unfortunately, AWI research shows that the law is not actively enforced. In fact, over the past 15 years, the USDA has only made 12 inquiries into possible violations of the law, just one of which was referred to the Department of Justice for enforcement action. 

To improve the health and welfare of farmed animals during transport, AWI is advocating changes to the Animal Health Protection Act to ensure that animals transported domestically are healthy and fit for travel, as is currently required for live animals transported internationally. AWI is also pushing for the establishment of an enforcement mechanism to ensure that potential violations of the Twenty-Eight Hour Law are actively monitored and investigated by the agencies charged with doing so. 

Improving USDA oversight of poultry slaughter
The USDA is required to ensure that poultry products entering the food supply are not “adulterated” (i.e., damaged or unsafe). The mistreatment and inhumane handling of birds at slaughter can lead to adulterated carcasses and food safety problems. Therefore, in federally inspected slaughter plants, inspection personnel monitor compliance with good commercial practices (GCP) for bird handling. However, extensive research has found that this approach is insufficient when it comes to protecting birds. Thousands of USDA records obtained by AWI demonstrate serious, ongoing inhumane handling in plants, including birds drowning in scalding tanks, live birds disposed of under piles of dead birds, birds dying due to suffocation and/or prolonged exposure to extreme weather, and mechanical problems resulting in serious bird injury and/or death. These records also reveal agency oversight varies significantly across plants, as there is no evidence of USDA verification of GCP compliance in 35 percent of federally inspected poultry plants between 2017 and 2019. To protect food safety and prevent further egregious humane handling problems within plants, AWI is advocating improvements to USDA oversight of bird handling within plants, as well as the establishment of additional standards for humane treatment of birds. 

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