The Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Sanctuary filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming failure to require humane handling of poultry at slaughter. The groups said this lack of oversight has resulted in damaged or contaminated products that violate the Poultry Productions Inspection Act.
The lawsuit was filed Aug. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York by Harvard Law School’s new Animal Law & Policy Clinic, which is representing the plaintiff organizations. The suit calls on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to develop regulations governing the handling of chickens, turkeys, and other birds at federally inspected slaughter facilities to address the systematic mistreatment of the animals, which can compromise food safety and meat quality.
“Each year, 9 billion chickens and turkeys are slaughtered in the United States, yet the USDA does virtually nothing to prevent pain and suffering of the birds at slaughter,” said Dena Jones, farm animal program director for AWI. “The department refuses to act against industry interests — even when doing so would improve poultry product quality and help prevent the abuse of the vast majority of land animals being killed for food.”
The group also claims Tyson Foods and Simmons Foods each had 29 incidents around humane handling issues between 2016 and 2018, according to USDA inspection reports. The reports cited the Tyson plant in Springdale and Simmons’ plant in Decatur as being tied for the sixth-highest number of inhumane handling incidents of birds during slaughter.
The suit said periodic reviews of USDA enforcement records by AWI reveal that government inspectors document each year tens of thousands of birds suffering excruciating deaths before they even reach the slaughter line. Hundreds or thousands of birds die, sometimes in a single incident, from causes that are unacceptable under the law such as exposure to extreme weather, blunt force trauma, and asphyxiation. Birds in slaughter plants were also subjected to intentional acts of cruelty by workers, including being kicked, hit, mutilated, driven over, or dumped onto conveyor belts with visibly broken legs and wings.
“Chickens and other birds suffer egregious cruelty at US slaughterhouses,” said Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. “The USDA has failed to provide basic humane consideration, allowing callous abuse and irresponsible killing methods that threaten our health and humanity, and are outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in a society that purports to care about compassion.”
The National Chicken Council, a national trade group, released the following statement regarding this litigation.
“Poultry processors consider the welfare of the birds a top priority,” said NCC Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Ashley Peterson. “Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it does not make economic sense to mistreat the birds. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has guidelines and directives addressing appropriate handling of birds under the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, and chicken processors strictly adhere to their animal welfare guidelines. This whole process is routinely audited internally, by independent third party auditors and by customers. It is monitored on a continuous basis by FSIS inspectors.”
USDA said it reviewed and denied petitions by AWI in 2013 and again 2016 regarding handling of birds because the PPIA law does not the government agency any specific authority to prescribe requirements for the humane handling of live birds at slaughter.
USDA said it continues to act within its authority under the PPIA to address the handling of poultry at official poultry establishments to prevent product adulteration. The regulations require poultry to be slaughtered in accordance with good commercial practices (GCP), which means that poultry should be treated humanely. USDA inspection activities verify and enforce adherence to GCP at official poultry establishments. Through this existing framework, PSIS addresses the poultry handling concerns that you raise in the petitions.
Tyson Foods and Simmons Foods both referred to the National Chicken Council comment when asked for a response to the lawsuit.