AWI Sues to Prevent Inhumane Handling of Birds at Slaughter

The suffering of birds at federally inspected slaughter establishments is staggering. During the winter months, trucks arrive at the plants with birds who are dead and frozen to their transport cages. Surviving birds sometimes sit for hours—if not days—in freezing temperatures before they are unloaded. In summer months, birds are left on trucks in the hot weather with no shade or access to food and water, leading them to die from heat exhaustion or to endure hours of hunger and thirst.

photo by Henryk Sadura
photo by Henryk Sadura

Once unloaded, the birds face more abuse. They are thrown off the trucks in their crates, carelessly dumped onto conveyor belts, and even run over by forklifts, suffering broken bones, lacerations, and asphyxiation under the crush of other birds. In most US slaughterhouses, birds are then strung up by their feet while conscious onto the slaughter line, which can cause more injuries and distress. As they proceed down the line, they are submerged in an electric water bath to stun them. In some instances, birds are improperly stunned and/or miss having their throats cut by the auto-knife. Such birds may enter the scald tank alive and fully conscious—to die an excruciating death by drowning in scalding hot water. 

Birds face this misery due to the USDA’s failure to require humane handling at slaughter. According to AWI’s research, the USDA’s regulatory blind spot has resulted in millions of birds suffering and dying in a manner other than by humane slaughter. 

The USDA’s own poultry slaughter records demonstrate that birds could be spared this fate if the department regulated bird handling under the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). The PPIA requires the USDA to prevent “adulteration” (damage or contamination) of poultry products, and the department has acknowledged that humane handling reduces poultry adulteration. AWI has lobbied the USDA for years to use this authority, but the department has refused to do so. 

In 2013, AWI and Farm Sanctuary petitioned the USDA to create regulations to require humane handling of birds, arguing that the PPIA mandates such action. AWI also wrote the USDA in 2016 asking that it prohibit establishments from allowing birds to be abandoned for extended periods of time during extreme weather conditions, which causes mass suffering and death of birds other than by humane slaughter. The USDA treated this letter as another petition, but ignored our requests in both cases. 

After years of delay, the USDA formally denied the petitions in 2019, asserting that it did not have authority to promulgate the requested regulations and that the PPIA does not give it jurisdiction to require humane handling of birds. AWI and Farm Sanctuary sued the USDA on August 13, 2020, for denying the petitions. We hope that the lawsuit will force the department to end its practice of ignoring inhumane handling at slaughter and failing to prevent the consequent adulteration of poultry products. 

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