The inadequate, haphazard oversight by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) of the treatment of chickens and turkeys at slaughterhouses has resulted in the widespread mistreatment and suffering of birds at some of the nation’s largest plants, with no real consequences for the meat companies, according to new research released on Friday by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
AWI’s report reviews USDA inspection records from 2017 through 2019 at approximately 300 federally inspected turkey and chicken slaughter plants, which kill the vast majority of the 9.6 billion birds butchered every year for their meat.
The USDA has gradually increased the number of handling records issued for noncompliance with ‘good commercial practices’ (GCP) at chicken and turkey slaughter plants over the past 14 years. However, during the recent three-year period, inspectors took action to stop the abuse of birds in only 14% of the documented incidents.
Although the slaughter of birds is currently governed by the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, not one single USDA regulation requires that individual birds be handled ‘humanely.’ As a result, inspectors are prevented from taking any enforcement action for most GCP violations.
Sixteen bird slaughter plants were cited for 20 or more ‘humane’ handling violations, yet the USDA only issued ‘Letters of Concern’ to Pilgrim’s Pride in Nacogdoches, Texas, and Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for egregious or repeat handling problems, according to documents obtained by AWI through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Absent real accountability, industry leaders have no incentive to alter their behavior and treat birds more humanely,” Dena Jones, Farm Animal Program Director for AWI, said in a statement. “It is clear that the USDA is not serious about preventing mistreatment of birds at slaughter; the department’s GCP oversight program, which it created in 2005 in response to public and congressional outcry over bird mistreatment, is purely voluntary.”
Between 2017 and 2019, the most commonly cited ‘humane’ handling problems at turkey and chicken slaughter plants involved birds drowning in scald tanks and the improper disposal of live birds, including burying them alive under piles of dead birds. Incidents affecting the largest number of birds involved high dead-on-arrival rates due to suffocation or prolonged exposure to extreme weather, as well as mechanical problems resulting in injury and death. For example, records showed that multiple birds had their legs ripped off or were disemboweled while conscious due to malfunctioning equipment.
Similarly, video footage obtained by animal advocacy undercover investigations has revealed that, even under the GCP program, the abuse of birds is still common practice at some slaughter plants, where workers have been observed throwing, kicking, and punching birds on numerous occasions.
In August, AWI and Farm Sanctuary sued the USDA for failing to require ‘humane’ handling of birds at slaughter. The lawsuit is still pending.
AWI’s recent investigation, which updates its 2017 report on this issue, found that the following turkey and chicken slaughter plants received the most GCP citations from 2017 through 2019: Allen Harim Foods in Harbeson, DE (56); Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg, MS (49); Perdue Foods in Lewiston, NC (37); Moroni Turkey Processing (Pitman Farms) in Moroni, UT (35); and the former Simply Essentials Poultry in Charles City, IA (34).
Among the report’s recommendations:
The USDA should promulgate regulations requiring the ‘humane’ handling of birds by addressing worker training, transportation, and holding conditions, the shackling of birds, the treatment of sick and injured birds, and more.
The department should proactively post online records related to noncompliance, and refer incidents involving intentional abuse for prosecution under state animal cruelty laws.