Complaints of inhumane slaughter were leveled at a hen slaughter plant in Butterfield, MN, over the weekend.
In an investigation into Butterfield Foods Co., a member of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) spent 57 days working undercover at Butterfield’s plant for slaughtering “spent hens,” which are egg-laying chickens deemed no longer commercially profitable and are slaughtered for low-grade meat products.
Spent hens are usually killed by gas and on farms, where they are used for animal feed and pet food. However, some companies send their birds to factories for slaughter and use in human-grade food such as canned chicken products.
At Butterfield, after being removed from crates and shackled upside down, the birds are moved through an electrified trough of water designed to stun them, past a blade to cut their throats and kill them, and through scalding water to loosen their feathers.
HSUS alleges that birds regularly made it through this process still alive. In one 30-minute period, HSUS’s investigator counted about 45 “red birds” — an industry term for such hens because the blood from their still-pumping hearts rushes to the skin during the scalding, making their carcasses red.
USDA inspectors count these birds when they appear at inspection points, but Paul Shapiro, HSUS vice president of farm animal protection, said that Butterfield workers throw away most of the red birds before they reach inspection.
In February 2011, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) noticed red birds on the line and notified company personnel to replace the blade in the kill machine. The agency issued a “Memorandum of Information” documenting that it had notified the plant of the problem, that they were out of compliance with federal regulations, and that they had been told to fix the problem.
The plant has not been issued a Notice of Intended Enforcement because of inhumane treatment/slaughter.
In addition to the red bird issue, Shapiro said the Butterfield quality-assurance person told the undercover investigator that if carcasses contaminated with feces were found on the line, “the USDA should not be informed because they might shut it down until the source of the problem was identified.”
“That same QA person told our investigator to tell Butterfield management instead and they would address it with line workers,” he added.
Butterfield contends the HSUS allegations. “There are industry guidelines, and we are in compliance with all of them,” Terry Fruth, an attorney representing the company, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “There are government rules, and we follow them.”
On Jan. 3, HSUS filed an animal-cruelty complaint with the Watonwan County Sheriff against Butterfield Foods and a complaint with FSIS regarding possible violations of the Poultry Products Inspection Act.
An FSIS spokesperson told Food Safety News that the agency “is conducting an immediate and thorough investigation of the events that occurred at Butterfield Foods. FSIS takes the welfare of all animals seriously, and we have seen the rate at which birds die inhumanely plummet to a low of .008 percent in 2013.”
HSUS is calling on USDA to include hens and other poultry in its enforcement of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and to require slaughter plants to switch to more humane systems such as controlled atmosphere killing, which involves gassing the birds before they are removed from their crates.© Food Safety News