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.