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Activists seek tighter slaughter standards for chickens, turkeys

Opinion

The Obama administration once again made history for animals when it closed a major loophole in federal livestock regulations last month. It finalized a new rule that bans the slaughter of “downed” calves – those who are too sick or injured to even stand up – and instead mandates that they must be promptly and humanely euthanized.

logo Humane Society of the United StatesExtending this basic protection to veal calves is something the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has worked for since a similar regulation to protect adult cows was put in place in 2009. That action was taken in the wake of an HSUS cattle slaughter exposé that led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. That same year, another HSUS investigation into a calf slaughter plant in Vermont exposed the same kind of abuse – calves who were too sick to stand were repeatedly shocked with electric prods, kicked and slapped in order to force them to move.

The new federal regulation should reduce that type of appalling behavior and protect consumers from tainted meat, since producers will now lose money if the animals are too sick or injured to be slaughtered. Instead of being forced into holding pens where they may be left for hours or days, sometimes without drinking water, and instead of being shocked and abused into standing up so they may be slaughtered, these calves now must be promptly and humanely euthanized and excluded from the human food supply.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized in explaining the rule change, it not only improves treatment at slaughter plants, it also removes the incentive to put very young, weak or sick calves on trucks to slaughter facilities in the first place: “Based on its findings, the agency concluded that there is a direct correlation between the growing and transport conditions of veal calves, and whether these calves arrive at an establishment non-ambulatory disabled. Thus, the agency estimates that by incentivizing growers and transporters to improve animal welfare conditions, this final rule will lead to stronger, healthier calves being offered for slaughter.”

This means many calves will never endure the pain, suffering and injuries inherent in trucking infant animals to slaughterhouses, a process that often causes them to collapse in transit.

chickensonrun_406x250Unfortunately, though, glaring loopholes still exist within federal slaughter regulations that leave other farm animals at risk and compromise the integrity of our food system. For example, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is interpreted by the USDA to exclude birds, despite the fact that chickens and turkeys account for 95 percent of all land animals slaughtered for food. So, according to USDA, the only federal statute that exists to protect farm animals from unnecessary suffering at slaughter leaves the vast majority of those animals without any legal safeguard at all.

This has resulted in horrendous slaughter conditions for birds. After being shackled upside-down by their feet, they’re dragged through a vat of electrified water intended to paralyze them before their throats are cut. The birds are then carried off to be scalded in tanks of scalding water and de-feathered. Sometimes the blade that’s intended to kill them misses their necks, and they’re plunged into the scalding water and drowned alive. It’s a terrifying, excruciating end to the miserable existence factory-farmed chickens suffer. In addition, the birds are sped through this process at such high speeds that it’s virtually impossible to ensure adequate inspection for foodborne illness.

Like cows, chickens are intelligent, social animals. They recognize individuals within their flocks and people who they’ve met before. They learn by watching other chickens, can empathize, and solve complex problems. Some studies even suggest that they are smarter than human toddlers. However, at slaughterhouses, they’re subjected to only fear, stress and pain.

The HMSA should be farm animals’ best line of defense against the most inhumane slaughter methods, but right now, most slaughtered animals are left in the dark.

The Obama Administration has spoken up for newborn cows, signifying that they deserve better than to fall through a massive loophole in federal law. This momentous step in the right direction shows us that slaughter reform is not only possible, but that it’s a priority for animal advocates and consumers alike.

In recent years, we’ve seen a rapid increase in concern about farm animal welfare. As this trend continues to grow, hopefully it will push the ball forward for birds. In the meantime, we can certainly celebrate the long-awaited progress for calves.

 Editor’s note: Alicia Prygoski is a public policy coordinator for The Humane Society of the United States and graduate of Western Michigan University Law School.

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