USDA, Local Officials Do Nothing as Birds Left to Die at Loading Dock

What will it take for the US Department of Agriculture and local law enforcement to take bird abandonment seriously? Apparently, five incidents resulting in the death of over 20,000 birds at one facility alone is not enough. Neither is the abandonment of birds in searing heat or freezing cold for days on end with no protection from the elements.

chickens - photo by Fernando Macias Romo
photo by Fernando Macias Romo

This problem has continued for years, but nothing seems to change. In 2013 and 2016, AWI wrote the USDA about incidents involving thousands of chickens and turkeys dying in transport trailers that were left out for days in inclement weather. In one particularly disturbing event, Norbest (a turkey company) held birds on a truck for 53 hours before slaughter without food or water. At another facility, Tip Top Poultry, personnel left six trucks of birds over the weekend, in extreme heat conditions, without food or water. Two months later, the same establishment left three and a half truckloads of birds over the weekend, again in extreme heat conditions without food or water, and despite being cautioned by USDA inspectors not to abandon the birds. 

While the USDA did document these incidents, its “enforcement” actions amounted to no more than a letter to the facility’s management describing what happened. Documentation of these incidents does nothing to punish the establishments or stop them from engaging in the same behavior in the future. Frequently, it does happen again—many of these incidents occur repeatedly at the same facilities. 

This is largely because the USDA’s position is that the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA)—the only law that governs poultry slaughter in the United States—gives it no authority to regulate this behavior; it can only take nonregulatory actions, which amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. According to the USDA, it can also report these incidents to local prosecutors when the behavior appears to violate local anticruelty laws. 

In our correspondence with the USDA, AWI asked the department to take these incidents more seriously and requested that it consider revising its directive and regulations to address the problem of bird abandonment. We argued that the USDA actually does have authority under the PPIA because it is obligated to ensure that animals do not die by means other than slaughter, such that the animal is considered “adulterated” and unfit for human consumption. We made similar arguments in a lawsuit filed in August 2020 requesting that the USDA regulate humane handling of poultry at slaughter. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2020.) In October, a judge denied the USDA’s motion to dismiss the case, and it is moving forward.

Unfortunately, the USDA has not acted on AWI’s requests, so we are trying a different approach. According to most states’ anticruelty codes, abandoning an animal with no shelter is illegal. So this behavior, combined with the USDA’s position on where its jurisdiction ends, underlines the pressing need to apply local anticruelty laws to incidents where animals are left without care outside slaughterhouses. 

In June 2021, in rural Butterfield, Minnesota, 2,552 birds died from exposure to extreme heat after being abandoned for hours in a transport trailer at Butterfield Food Company. In August 2020, 9,500 birds died from heat exposure. In February 2020, 9,000 hens froze when left outside in a wind chill of minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit. In March 2018, 330 birds froze to death in a transport trailer. And in February 2018, half of a shipment of birds were killed by freezing temperatures.
At Jennie-O in Melrose, Minnesota, hundreds of turkeys died in six incidents from April to June of 2021 after they were left sweltering in direct sun as temperatures rose into the 90s. On-site USDA officials told employees repeatedly to provide shelter, fans, and misters to keep the birds cool, but employees did not follow these instructions. 

In response to these incidents, AWI sent letters to local prosecutors asking that they pursue animal cruelty charges against Butterfield Foods and Jennie-O Turkey Store. Our letters urge the prosecutors to bring charges against the establishment and its employees for their deliberate and negligent behavior, in clear contravention of Minnesota’s anticruelty statute. Under Minnesota law, it is unlawful to deprive any animal of necessary food, water, and shelter. It is also unlawful to neglect or abandon any animal, or to keep any animal in an enclosure without providing change of air.

AWI argued that prosecution would be appropriate to hold those accountable for this behavior and to deter similar incidents from occurring in the future. While the Stearns county attorney did refer the Jennie-O case to local law enforcement, the Watonwan county attorney is declining to prosecute the Butterfield case. The Watonwan county attorney’s letter to AWI informing us of this decision did not even analyze whether the facts of the case met the standard for cruelty under the law. AWI also provided this information to sheriffs in both counties and requested investigation or charges, but only Stearns County contacted us for more information. We do not know at this time whether the county is proceeding with an investigation. 

AWI also sent a follow-up letter to the USDA arguing that the way it handles these incidents leaves local prosecutors confused about their role in the process. Because the USDA does not clearly indicate to local officials its stance that it has no authority to penalize the behavior, local officials do not fully grasp that it is incumbent upon them to address such situations. 

AWI strongly believes that both the USDA and local officials are responsible for preventing cruelty and neglect from occurring at bird slaughterhouses. The USDA can exercise its authority and take stronger action against these establishments, and it can be firmer when it refers any incidents to local enforcement authorities. And local prosecutors and law enforcement can indict and prosecute those responsible for cruelty, thereby signaling to individuals and poultry slaughterhouses that such gross neglect will not be tolerated. 
Currently, though, both the USDA and local officials seem content to stand on the sidelines—confused, reluctant to act, and seemingly indifferent to the suffering these birds endure. What amount of needless, preventable suffering will be enough to jolt them into action?