USDA Sued to Compel Humane Handling of Birds at Slaughter

Photo by Mercy for Animals
Photo by Mercy for Animals

Rochester, NY—Today, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Farm Sanctuary sued the US Department of Agriculture in federal court for failing to require humane handling of poultry at slaughter, resulting in adulterated (i.e., damaged or contaminated) products that violate the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Western District of New York by Harvard Law School’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which is representing the plaintiff organizations. It calls on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to develop regulations governing the handling of chickens, turkeys, and other birds at federally inspected slaughter facilities to address the systematic mistreatment of these animals, which can compromise food safety and meat quality.

“Each year, 9 billion chickens and turkeys are slaughtered in the United States, yet the USDA does virtually nothing to prevent pain and suffering of the birds at slaughter,” said Dena Jones, farm animal program director for AWI. “The department refuses to act against industry interests — even when doing so would improve poultry product quality and help prevent the abuse of the vast majority of land animals being killed for food.”

Periodic reviews of USDA enforcement records by AWI reveal that, every year, government inspectors document tens of thousands of birds suffering excruciating deaths before they even reach the slaughter line. Hundreds or thousands of birds die, sometimes in a single incident, from causes that are unacceptable under the PPIA, such as exposure to extreme weather, blunt force trauma, and asphyxiation. Birds in slaughter plants were also subjected to intentional acts of cruelty by workers, including being kicked, hit, mutilated, driven over, or dumped onto conveyor belts with visibly broken legs and wings.

Sadly, these reported incidents barely scratch the surface, given that USDA inspectors observe the handling of only a very small percentage of the birds slaughtered. Inspectors at one-third of all poultry plants, in fact, generated no humane handling records whatsoever during a recent three-year period.

As it stands, the industry is able to forego humane handling practices with little, if any, consequences. Currently, the only action USDA inspectors can take when they observe mistreatment of birds is to issue a memorandum describing the incident. Even when establishments engage in repeated or intentional acts, the USDA does nothing to stop it. The USDA is aware that its failure to require humane handling of birds at slaughter results in the adulteration of millions of bird carcasses annually, but the department turns a blind eye.

In one case, nearly 10,000 birds froze to death after being transported and held for at least 22 hours in unprotected trucks during extreme cold at a Butterfield Foods slaughterhouse in Minnesota. In another incident, a Jennie-O slaughter plant in Minnesota was cited 10 times in just four months when birds were seriously injured by malfunctioning equipment that caused large areas of their skin to be torn, resulting in hemorrhaging and muscle mutilation. The Southern Hens facility in Mississippi was cited 10 times in less than a month because workers were tossing crates with live birds inside.

This widespread abuse of birds at slaughter could be prevented if the USDA adopted humane handling regulations. In 2013, AWI and Farm Sanctuary petitioned the FSIS to use the authority granted to it by Congress to codify poultry humane handling standards into enforceable regulations.

After a six-year delay, during which time federal inspectors documented more than 1,000 incidents of poultry mistreatment, the FSIS denied the petition. At the same time, it denied a second petition from AWI asking the agency to address the problem of birds being abandoned for extended periods in the holding areas of slaughter plants — often in extreme heat or cold.

Despite the USDA’s own evidence identifying the mistreatment of birds as a cause of adulterated poultry products, the FSIS claimed it had no jurisdiction to enforce humane handling of birds at slaughter, and maintained that the current approach of voluntary compliance is adequate.

“Chickens and other birds suffer egregious cruelty at US slaughterhouses,” said Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. “The USDA has failed to provide basic humane consideration, allowing callous abuse and irresponsible killing methods that threaten our health and humanity, and are outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in a society that purports to care about compassion.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, with the assistance of several law students who helped draft the complaint.

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Media Contact

Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, margie@awionline.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute 
The Animal Welfare Institute (www.awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere – in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

About the Farm Sanctuary
Founded in 1986, Farm Sanctuary works to change how our society views and treats farm animals through rescue, education and advocacy. The organization provides lifelong care for animals rescued from abuse at sanctuary locations in New York and California; promotes compassionate vegan living; and advocates legal and policy reforms. To learn more about Farm Sanctuary, visit farmsanctuary.org.

About the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School
The Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School is committed to analyzing and improving the treatment of animals by the legal system. In 2019, it launched the Animal Law & Policy Clinic to provide students with direct hands-on experience in animal advocacy on behalf of both captive animals and wildlife, including litigation, legislation, administrative practice, and policymaking. For more information, visit animal.law.harvard.edu.

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