People are often shocked to learn how little government oversight exists surrounding the way animals are slaughtered in the United States.

There are only about 148 (full-time equivalent) humane slaughter inspectors for the 148 million cows, pigs and sheep slaughtered every year at federally inspected establishments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the equivalent of just ONE humane slaughter inspector for every ONE MILLION animals. Shocking, indeed. as bad as the situation is for “livestock,” it is far, far worse — 200 times worse, in fact — for birds. USDA does not report time spent monitoring the treatment of birds at slaughter establishments, but my back-of-the-envelope calculation arrives at an estimation of ONE humane slaughter inspector for every TWO HUNDRED MILLION birds. And I was generous, assuming that every poultry plant monitors bird handling during every shift, which we are quite certain doesn’t happen.

Why is government oversight so much weaker for birds? Because birds, which represent 98 percent of animals killed for food (fish excluded), are not covered by the federal humane slaughter law. Last decade, undercover investigations at poultry slaughter plants exposed egregious, intentional animal cruelty. Under pressure by Congress and the public to do something, USDA published a notice encouraging the poultry industry to adhere to “Good Commercial Practices” (GCP) for bird handling. The operative word here is “encouraging” because compliance with these practices, which USDA defined as the poultry industry’s own minimal animal handling guidelines, is completely voluntary.

USDA has not codified these bird-handling requirements in regulation. As a result, poultry plants suffer no consequences from the abuse of birds — even when done intentionally. There are no fines, no slowing or stopping of the slaughter line, and no shutting down of a plant with egregious or repeated violations. The only form of animal suffering at slaughter covered by regulation is birds drowning in the scalding tank (birds should be dead before they are immersed in the tank, a procedure to facilitate feather removal). And even in those instances, a regulatory control action is not taken if a single bird is scalded to death; it requires multiple live birds entering the scald tank, signifying that the system “is out of control,” before something is done.

Monitoring of GCP is hit and miss at U.S. poultry plants. The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), with another advocacy organization, Farm Sanctuary, has been reviewing records related to USDA’s audits of GCP since its monitoring began nearly a decade ago. We found that inspectors produced no reports related to humane handling at about half of the nation’s 300 federally inspected plants in that span of time, during which 50 to 100 billion birds were slaughtered.

Even the most conscientious, well-meaning inspector can do very little when mishandling of birds occurs. Their only recourse is to prepare what is referred to as a “Memorandum of Interview” (MOI), which is basically just a reminder that the plant should not do whatever it was that the inspector caught them doing. Some plants are issued dozens of these MOIs in a year for abusive acts such as throwing live birds, burying live birds in piles of dead birds, allowing birds to freeze to death in their cages, or breaking birds’ legs by violently slamming them into shackles. In certain plants, these incidents occur again and again and will continue to occur until there are real consequences for this sort of behavior.

In January, an investigation by The Humane Society of the United States at a slaughter plant in Minnesota uncovered acts of animal cruelty, including workers throwing sick and injured birds against the wall or tossing them into the trash, and workers jabbing birds with metal hooks to remove them from their cages. Another recent investigation by the advocacy group Mercy for Animals (MFA) documented excessive use of force in shackling birds and the drowning of birds in the scald tank at a North Carolina slaughterhouse. Neither of these plants had a history of being written up by USDA.

The MFA investigation caught the attention of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In his op-ed, “To Kill a Chicken,” Kristof observed, pointing to the lack of federal rules to ensure humane slaughter of birds: “If you torture a single chicken and are caught, you’re likely to be arrested. If you scald thousands of chickens alive, you’re an industrialist who will be lauded for your acumen.”

The editorial board of USA Today has also weighed in, supporting greater protections for birds at slaughter. In its opposing view, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association offered the specious claim that USDA inspectors “can take enforcement action for mistreatment if spotted,” and therefore more government regulation is not needed. It is simply not true that USDA inspectors can take enforcement action for mistreatment, other than multiple live birds entering the scald tank.

While the preferred solution is to cover birds under the humane slaughter law, a simpler (albeit less comprehensive) approach would be for USDA to regulate the handling of birds based on its authority to ensure the wholesomeness of poultry products. Then USDA inspectors could take regulatory control actions (such as shutting down a slaughter line) when serious violations are observed. A rulemaking petition requesting this change was submitted in December 2013, and since then more than 239,000 citizens have signed a petition to USDA encouraging it to grant the proposal.

But USDA tends not to require animal agriculture to do anything it does not want to do. Even though the poultry industry claims it already meets animal welfare standards, it does not support placing them in regulation. The industry likes the status quo just fine, answering any complaints of abusive treatment by claiming bird handling is overseen by USDA and deflecting blame and responsibility to the department. The industry gives the outward impression that humane handling is being regulated — well aware that it is not.

And so, the suffering of birds at slaughter continues.

  • KONG

    In the name of pro-choice we can rip apart a unborn child in the womb , but how dare we harm those roosters. Save the baby humans.

    • Gaia

      That’s the reason for all this in the first place to many people to feed….maybe next time you’ll come back as a chicken…….

    • yogachick

      You can be opposed to abortion and also be opposed to animal cruelty.

    • Molesworth

      This is a typical red herring argument. It’s not an either/or situation. I’m a vegetarian and I also support women’s health initiatives and child welfare. You do realize that the best way to prevent abortion is through inexpensive, available birth control, education and anti-poverty measures? And yet those who generally speak of “ripping apart unborn children” are most often the same people who try to cut funding for women’s programs, for childcare, and who oppose the very educational and access measures that would reduce abortion to a fraction were the resources available. Furthermore, you obviously don’t understand that most terminations occur in the very early stages of a pregnancy where your description simply does not apply. We have women, men, children, and sentient animals in terrible suffering and distress on this planet. They are already here, born, hurting — and every measure toward compassion helps.

      • KONG

        To your point that birth control will solve the abortion problem. I would argue contraception has removed the pro-creative aspect of the conjugal act and led to the objectification of women. The conjugal act has been reduced from a life giving/bonding experience for husband and wife to a recreational activity. The contraception you champion leads to abortion. Why because what is abortion other than back-up birth control?
        To your second point that an unborn 1st trimester child is not a child is illogical and not factual. At 21 days an unborn child heart beats at 130 beats/minute, at 4 weeks fingers and toes are developed, at 6 weeks hearing and eyesight is developed, at 11 weeks the child can do summersaults, and at 12 weeks the unborn child feel pain.
        To abort a child, an abortionist dilates the women’s cervix just enough to get a pair of forceps into the womb. From there piece by piece the unborn child(with no pain drugs for the child) is removed from the uterus. Finally, since the head is to big to be removed, it’s contents are sucked out and then crushed and removed from the uterus. The abortionist then assembles all the pieces of the child to ensure nothing is left in the uterus. We wouldn’t do this to a born child or a rooster, why is it Ok to do to a child in the womb? Why is location or species relevant?

        • Mark Caponigro

          Whether the conjugal act has a “pro-creative aspect” should be left entirely up to the couple doing the conjugating. They should not have imposed on them a faulty, backwards ideology of what sex is supposed to be all about, an ideology that has had far more responsibility for the objectification of women (and gay people) than modern technology in contraception.

    • I am disappointed that the Food Safety News comment monitor didn’t disallow your grossly off-topic comment.

    • MellowCat

      Good try, but I am against animal abuse AND abortion, so you need to find a more credible attempt to inject some kind of moral equivalency into your argument. It is a tired talking point.

      • KONG

        There is no moral equivalency between human life and animal life. Human life is superior. Animal life should be respected and attempts should be made to quicken the slaughtering process and minimize pain. The slaughtering of 42 million unborn American children is horrific and a holocaust, the improper slaughtering of chickens is still just dinner.

  • Alan Nemeth

    One possible cure for the lack of inspectors is the installation of a remote inspection and oversight system. Cameras can be mounted in slaughterhouses and factory farm establishments to allow for 24-hour-a-day remote inspection at a central location within the Dept. of Agriculture. Those remote feeds would also be available to the public — if not live, then under FOIA requests. If the animal-based industry says that they are adhering to humane guidelines, then they should support the remote inspection proposal. A remote inspection system would be cost effective and provide a much broader scope of inspection than is available under the current system. In-person inspections would continue, but the USDA would have the ability to focus those live inspections based on the information obtained through the remote inspection system.

    • MellowCat

      The USDA won’t stop abuse when it is happening right in front of them. A third party or even the public should be the monitors. The USDA is a horrible sham of a tax-wasting agency that is nothing but a record-keeping and statistical repository posing as an enforcer of laws. They don’t work for us, mark my words.

  • Bablingb

    It’s obvious you’ve not spent much time in a poultry processing facility and have little knowledge regarding poultry slaughter. Just so you know, hours of research go into determining the most humane slaughter methods possible. Maybe you should do some research? Also, installing 24 hour remote cameras cost money, in addition to paying to people to monitor those cameras. How do you propose paying for that? Isn’t the cost of food high enough already?

    • MellowCat

      It doesn’t take research to conclude that hurling birds around, stomping on their heads, transporting them in freezing or baking temperatures, grinding chicks alive and not allowing them space to turn around is not humane. Bigger cages are too much of a “burden” for these greedy bastards to accomplish. I bet the HSUS and its donors would be more than happy to help fund cameras and plenty of volunteers to monitor them. The cost of food is high to line CEO’s pockets and make stockholders happy. These groups give millions to charity and to politicians. I’m pretty sure they can afford cameras.

  • Stan T

    Is there anything humane about slaughter? Guess you can treat them well until the point you put a knife to their throats or hang them upside down or put them in cages or meddle in their lives at all…

    • Kitsy WooWoo

      Back when I was still eating (organic) chicken, I sent an email to Stop&Shop and asked how they treat their chickens. Briefly, I was told that they are very happy little campers, except for their “one bad day.” Otherwise, hey, they’re happy! Yeah, right.

  • MaryFinelli

    Humane slaughter is oxymoronic. Any time you hear the word “humane” used in reference to the treatment of other animals – including other humans, ask if you would consider it to be humane if you were the victim. If you were going to be slaughtered merely so someone else could profit from your death, what way of being killed would you consider to be humane?

    It is only humane to kill someone when it is in their best interest to do so (e.g., euthanasia). That clearly isn’t the case when someone is killed just so that they can be used as food. Any time animals are commodified, animal suffering will be inevitable. All of the nutrients we need to thrive can be obtained more humanely, healthfully, and environmentally responsibly with a plant-sourced (i.e., vegan) diet. Harming animals for food is unjustifiable and is egregious animal abuse.

  • chickenadvocate

    The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not “protect” the animals who
    are covered by it and, as noted in this discussion, chickens and other birds
    are excluded. They are NOT stunned – rendered pain-free or unconscious – before
    their throats are partially cut during the slaughter process but are conscious
    through the entire electrified “stun” bath through which their faces are
    dragged as they hang upside down. The electricity is designed, not to stun
    them, but to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles so that their
    feathers will come out more easily after they are dead, and to immobilize them.
    Filled with fear, the chickens often try to hide their faces under the wing of
    the bird next to them. This industry cannot be reformed, but people who care
    can stop supporting it. I hope you will.

  • Whatever…..

    If you don’t like it, don’t eat meat. That way they will not have to kill so mant animals. On the other hand if you eat meat…SHUT UP!!!

    • Mark Caponigro

      Of course, nobody here HAS to kill. It’s a choice.

  • yogachick

    The answer is to go vegan. Stop the unnecessary, senseless violence, killing, and cruelty all together.

  • Ms. Jones: It appears that your grievance is against Congress and FSIS, not the poultry slaughter industry. Apparently, Congress believes that it is not in the public interest to pass legislation making poultry amenable to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The poultry slaughter industry, like any regulated industry, takes its lead from the regulators. I do not dispute your data. I do suggest that it supports “Congress and FSIS mislead the public about the humaneness of slaughter” as the more accurate title for your article.

    • Sean

      HUH? The INDUSTRY should do these without needing regulation. There are some things that are just the RIGHT thing to do. I dont need to be told not to pee in somebodies lemonade to “extend” it and make more profut The fact that Congress even needs to address the issue tells me EVRYTHING about why the spo-caleld free market is not free at all

      • Sean: The poultry industry currently implements humane handling and slaughter practices beyond what is required by statute. I do not question whether they do so because it is morally the right thing to do, or because it is economically the advantageous thing to do. My intent of my comment to Ms. Jones is this. Industry does what the statute requires or what the market place demands; whichever is greatest. Right now, the market place, not the statute determines the outcome. If you want industry to do more, then you need to change the market place or change the statute. Changing the statute is the easier of the two.

  • Mark Caponigro

    As the great animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin has argued, yes, the slaughter process for hoofed mammals can be made relatively free of pain and stress. But such methods of slaughter as she recommends do not make the slaughter “humane.” We need to know lots more about the individual animals before ever we can make that kind of call; and meanwhile, it is certainly reasonable to expect that, if they could speak, most of those animals would not say, “OK, I have lived long enough, it’s time for me to die.”

    And she says nothing about chickens at all. Talk about stress!: being hustled along a fast-moving conveyor belt, then grabbed by workers who have no interest in our feelings whatsoever, and pinned by the feet upside down! Is that the way any of us would wish to end our mortal lives?

    It was a great thing that Nicholas Kristof wrote the column that is referred to in this article. Hopefully more people will find their way to objecting to the consumption and marketing of chicken products. We should bear in mind that chickens are the terrestrial vertebrates who suffer by far the most at human hands, in terms of numbers of individuals killed.

    And in that connexion, we should also consider that people who go off eating beef or pork, out of a feeling of sympathy for cattle and pigs — a very commendable motive! — , involve themselves in a further injustice, if they just switch the victims of their meat-eating habits to chickens.

  • Beth Aaron

    We’ve all been betrayed as have the animals. This food system that requires violence, is manifesting the polar opposite of what a food system should. Instead of vibrant health and disease free longevity, just look at all the diseases human succumb to, diseases that we are told are genetic or just part of aging. NO! we are betrayed by media, corporate influence, and a medical, political, religious system that has been perverted to accept eating sentient non-human beings as “normal.” The results are everywhere. Ethical veganism is the best path to restore, rejuvenate, heal this man-made mess.