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USDA Plan to Speed Up Processing May Increase Poultry Abuse

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USDA records show that about 1 million chickens and turkeys are accidentally boiled alive every year in U.S. slaughterhouses, due in large part to fast-moving lines that fail to kill them before they are dropped into scalding water.

Many experts believe the number of inhumanely treated birds will only increase as the USDA finalizes a proposal that would allow poultry companies to speed up their processing lines.  The Department of Agriculture believes the move will decrease salmonella outbreaks and make plants more efficient.

USDA inspectors say much of the cruel treatment they witness has to do with the rapid pace at which employees are required to work. They flip the live birds upside down and shackle their legs – 140 chickens and 45 turkeys per minute. If they are not properly secured, the blade can miss and the birds are still alive when they enter the scalder.

“One of the greatest risks for inhumane treatment is line speed. You can’t always stop the abuse at these speeds,” said Mohan Raj, a poultry-slaughter expert who advises the European Food Safety Authority. “It’s so fast, you blink and the bird has moved away from you.”

The proposal would increase the maximum line speed to 175 chickens and 55 turkeys per minute.

On slaughter lines, workers shackle the legs of live poultry, hanging them in place before they are electrically stunned and a blade slits their necks.

If the process isn’t done properly, the blade can miss and live birds are dunked into scalding water to defeather them. Researchers say this death is far more painful for the birds than if they are properly incapacitated and their necks cut.

“They are literally throwing the birds into the shackles, often breaking their legs as they do it,” said Charles “Stan” Painter, a federal poultry inspector and chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. “They are working so fast, they sometimes get just one leg in the shackles. When that happens, the chickens aren’t hanging right. .?.?. They don’t get killed, and they go into the scald tank alive.”

The slaughtering process is designed to render the birds unconscious before their necks are cut and their bodies are dropped in the scalding tank. To do this, workers often run the birds’ heads through an electrified water bath to stun them.

The low voltage, however, and the high speed mean the birds sometimes do not lose consciousness.

“It’s very uneven,” said Raj. “It’s nearly impossible to get the same current to move through each bird, especially at high speeds.”

When the birds are improperly stunned and do not lose consciousness, they try to right themselves. They lift their necks, which can cause the blade to miss, leaving them alive as they enter the scalding tanks.

“There is some basis that people might say that the increased line speed in HIMP plants might adversely affect the humane handling of the birds, and we think that’s totally wrong,” said Philip Derfler, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “We think with the various things we have done in the HIMP system, we think if anything, it is at least as good as the current system, maybe better.”

Derfler claims that inspectors working at pilot plants over the past 15 years have not reported any worse abuse than what goes on at other plants.

USDA inspectors have the power to cite a plant for inhumane handling of poultry in accordance with the Poultry Products Inspection Act if they see birds that are unfit for human consumption.

Improper kills are easily spotted by inspectors because the birds that are boiled alive appear cherry-red in color. Their bodies were not drained of blood during slaughter and must be discarded. The blood-saturated meat can breed bacteria or disguise the presence of disease.

One inspector described being unable to stop a continuous stream of birds from being boiled alive at a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant in Georgia.

“I was unable to safely position myself to remove the birds at rapid line speed before entering the scalder,” the inspector said in his report. “I proceeded to observe the automatic and backup killer and noticed there were numerous amounts of birds missing the automatic knife and the backup killer was not able to keep up.”

The Animal Welfare Institute and the Humane Society of the United States have petitioned the poultry industry for years to adopt another method for rendering the birds unconscious. They suggest controlled atmospheric stunning, which uses carbon dioxide or other gases.

The most humane option, however, is to not kill the birds at all.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Source: Washington Post

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