There’s some potential good news for birds, consumers and workers: although the rule is not final yet, there are indications that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has pulled back on its plan to increase line speeds at poultry slaughter plants.
As I wrote last month, the agency had proposed allowing poultry companies to slaughter 175 chickens per minute, up from the current maximum speed of 140 per minute. The faster moving lines would undoubtedly have meant more inadequately stunned birds entering scalding-hot tanks of water while still conscious, more fecal matter contamination as stressed birds defecate in the water and spread pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter, and more grueling labor conditions for workers, many of whom already exhibit symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
After objections from members of Congress, worker safety, food safety, and animal protection groups, the USDA was right to rethink a dramatic acceleration of already fast-moving shackled birds on slaughter lines, and we hope this change is part of the final rule. As Politico reported, “The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will not divulge the details of the final modernized poultry inspection rule it sent Thursday to the White House Office of Management and Budget. In a statement, the USDA said only that it made changes to its previously released proposed rule to address ‘worker safety’ issues.”
It’s a step in the right direction, although the USDA’s proposed poultry slaughter rule is still problematic. It would eliminate 800 federal inspectors by transferring their responsibilities to the poultry industry. At a time when there are more and more salmonella outbreaks and chicken recalls, we need to improve our federal inspection system—not dismantle it through deregulation.
And it underscores a gaping hole in our nation’s animal protection laws: More than eight billion chickens and turkeys are raised in the United States for food each year—that’s about a million birds every hour of every day—and the USDA excludes them from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. By the agency’s interpretation, the federal law requiring that animals be rendered insensible to pain before they’re killed for food is not even applicable to more than 90 percent of farm animals used in agriculture production. It’s this arbitrary gap in the law that enables birds to be hung upside down, shocked into paralysis, have their throats cut, then drown in hot water—often while still conscious. They’re sentient creatures whose capacity to suffer pain is every bit as developed as our own.
Roberto Ferdman of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog noted that poultry is expected to become the world’s most popular meat over the next few years, as chicken consumption increases and pork consumption declines. Although per capita poultry consumption has dropped in the United States in recent years—from 104.6 pounds in 2006 to 99.1 pounds in 2014—a growing percentage of U.S. poultry is exported to foreign markets. Our federal agencies must keep up with changes in the marketplace, and our laws intended to protect animals from inhumane slaughter practices must be relevant for those animals in the real world. When the USDA talks about modernizing poultry slaughter inspections, a real modernization would be to give chickens and turkeys the same legal protections already afforded to cows and pigs.