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.
That’s my conclusion after reviewing video footage taken by an undercover investigator for Mercy for Animals, an animal rights group. The investigator said he worked for two months in a North Carolina poultry slaughterhouse and routinely saw chickens have their legs or wings broken, sometimes repeatedly – or, worse, be scalded to death.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” said the investigator, who insisted on remaining anonymous because he continues to work undercover elsewhere. He described it as torture.
Matt Rice, the director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, noted that federal rules on humane slaughter apply to cattle, hogs and sheep, but not to poultry – even though birds amount to 95 percent of farm animals killed each year in America.
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“I think most Americans would be shocked that 95 percent of farm animals aren’t protected by the few laws we have,” Rice said.
What’s striking about the undercover video is the speed of the assembly line, leading workers to fall behind in ways that inflict agony on the chickens. It’s a process that maximizes productivity and profits, and also pain.
Workers grab the birds and shove their legs upside down into metal shackles on a conveyor belt. The chickens are then carried upside down to an electrified bath that is meant to knock them unconscious. The conveyor belt then carries them – at a pace of more than two chickens per second – to a circular saw that cuts open their necks so that they bleed to death before they are scalded in hot water and their feathers plucked.
Even when the system works as intended, the birds sometimes have legs or wings broken as they are shackled, the investigator said. And when it doesn’t work correctly, the birds’ end can be horrifying.
Some chickens aren’t completely knocked out by the electric current and can be seen struggling frantically. Others avoid the circular saw somehow. A backup worker is supposed to cut the throat of those missed by the saw, but any that get by him are scalded alive, the investigator said.
The Agriculture Department calculates that about 700,000 chickens a year in the United States are “not slaughtered correctly” – often a euphemism for being scalded to death.
That number has come down – it was 1.5 million in 2007 – and it’s a tiny fraction of slaughtered birds. Agriculture Department officials say that it happens to only 0.008 percent of chickens slaughtered in the United States, and that those birds are then discarded (meaning that the slaughterhouses have a financial incentive to reduce the number scalded alive).
“The rate at which birds are not slaughtered correctly has plummeted,” says Phil Derfler of the Agriculture Department. “Our goal is always to drive that number as close to zero as possible.”
I asked the undercover investigator about this. He cast doubt on those numbers, saying that a higher percentage was scalded alive where he worked, and that those birds were processed along with others.
The company that operates the slaughterhouse, Wayne Farms, said it had reviewed the video and found no evidence of abuse. A spokesman, Frank Singleton, said that the company uses “industry-standard methods of humane slaughter.”
And he’s right. Nothing shown in the video is illegal or violates industry standards.
Most American consumers are, like me, conflicted. We eat meat, but we don’t want animals to suffer needlessly. One national poll last year found that 81 percent of consumers said that it was important to them that chickens they eat be humanely raised.
I raised chickens as a farmboy. They’re not as smart as pigs or as loyal as dogs, but they make great moms, can count and have distinct personalities. They are not widgets.
One alternative to the “industry standard” is controlled atmosphere stunning or killing, a system used in Europe in which birds are painlessly put to sleep while still in transport cages. The system is allowed in the United States, but it is barely used.
A bit more than a century ago, Upton Sinclair revealed the horrors of U.S. slaughterhouses, leading to federal reforms that benefit livestock but not poultry. For birds, an equivalent reform would be controlled atmosphere killing.
Think about that. If a naughty boy pulls feathers out of a single chicken, he’s punished. But scald hundreds of thousands of chickens alive each year? That’s a business model.
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Watch the video
Mercy for Animals shot undercover video of chickens being slaughtered. Find it mercyforanimals.org.