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.

  • Randy Janssen

    The HSUS is little more then a vegan cult. It wants to stop meat production and hunting by increments. The HSUS has already been found guilty of paying someone to produce evidence of animal cruelty. It is not inconceivable that this video was staged. Remember there are government inspectors in the plant.

    • Jennifer

      ah, spoken like a true, undercover government employee feeling threatened.

    • MaryFinelli

      There are government inspectors in other slaughterplants where animal abuse occurs, including illegal animal abuse. However, it’s often only brought to light by undercover investigations such as this one. Birds, fish, rabbits, etc. are not covered by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Plainly, you are a meat industry apologist.

    • riverdivine

      Give us all a break with your insane comments. For one thing, veganism is not ‘a cult’- it is a choice of diet based on compassion, and choosing not to engage in meaningless violence against the innocent. Factory farms are likely the most cruel, barbaric, and soul-less places on earth- thanks to people like you who fund animal cruelty by continuing to purchase meat that comes from factory farms- and worse, attempt to fortify the legitimacy of animal abuse by making these sorts of comments which excuse heinous criminal acts against animals.

      • Randy Janssen

        Eating vegan is not a cult, I don’t have any problem with people who do not want to eat meat or animal products. My grand daughter has my full support to eat vegetarian, which is not easy in South San Antonio. The HSUS on the other had is a vegan cult which tries to bully people into following its philosophy. As far as criminal acts, the HSUS has people who promote violence against food production and animal research as part of its governing body. It has also been found guilty of paying someone to testify about animal cruelty. The HSUS and other national animal rights groups are dangerous to the country. What I don’t like are thugs and bullies.

        • veganforlife

          Bullying people to not cause the unnecessary suffering and death of sentient beings. Yeahhhhh

    • MoodyFoodie

      Part of the point is that they were hiding evidence FROM the USDA inspectors. And who’s to say they weren’t taking back-handers to turn a blind eye? Afterall, it’s only chickens, right, so who cares?

  • Anna FIosta

    With every exposed depravity, animal agriculture’s “solution” ends up being worse than the problem. Stop trying to find the right way to do the wrong thing.

  • Amy

    Why waste time reforming injustice? Just be vegan and stop participating in food borne from violence to animals, destroying the environment, and human health.

    • MoodyFoodie

      Or you could be pragmatic and realize that meat consumption is not just going away anytime soon so you try to maintain a minimal standard of animal welfare…?

  • Jennifer Johns

    How is this a food safety issue? Do these “red birds” pose a greater risk of being contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter? If you want this to be about food safety the article needs to focus on the fact that they are trying to get birds contaminated with feces past the inspector. I’m not saying that these people shouldn’t be investigated for this or made to change their practices, because it does sound like gassing them is the far better option. It just isn’t what I would consider a FOOD SAFETY issue unless eating these birds poses a higher risk of food-borne illness.