Updated: Jul 6, 2022
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal agency primarily responsible for ensuring the humane treatment of farmed animals. But, is that something they can actually do? For poultry at least, the answer is definitely not and the system isn't set up to allow them to do that if they wanted to.
Most people will probably not be too surprised to learn that farmed animals are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act because, deep down, people know that there is no way to humanely raise and kill billions of animals a year for food. Standard industry practices in animal factories and slaughterhouses would get people arrested if they were carried out on a dog or cat so, the public gives animal farmers a pass on that.
What does cover some animals is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). The HMSA doesn't actually work for the most part (an untold number of undercover videos and whistleblower reports show this) but at least they are paying the idea some lip service so everyone can feel better about the situation. Something that may be a revelation to most consumers, however, is that poultry, which account for over 95 percent of the animals slaughtered for food, are not even covered by the theoretical protection of the HMSA. For perspective on how many animals we are talking about, there were 2.38 billion birds slaughtered in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2022 and over 9 billion per year on average.
Instead, in the eyes of the USDA, the treatment of poultry is covered by the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). The theory is that humane treatment of poultry is a side effect of the PPIA because birds that have been mistreated will be damaged (adulterated) and the carcass must be condemned and discarded. For example, a bird that was scalded alive will be a red color and can not be sold. The potential loss of money is supposed to be enough to protect the birds from the most egregious abuse. All that the USDA really expects poultry producers to do is not violate Good Commercial Practices (GCP) and the worst violation of GCP is for a bird to be killed by a "method other than slaughter".
The USDA inspectors do have the power to write up violations of GCP in two types of reports:
The Memorandum of Interview (MOI), which basically says that the plant has been made aware of the problem
The Noncompliance Record (NR) which is a little more stern of a slap on the wrist and is issued when there is a "process failure"
Theoretically, if enough NRs and MOIs pile up on a facility, there can be some further consequences. In most cases though, the only way there will be a real consequence from either of these types of actions is if the public gets to see the details and decides that they are upset enough about it to stop supporting that company.
The following quotes from FSIS (USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) Directive 6110.1 "Verification of Poultry Good Commercial Practices" sum up the lack of protection for individual birds.
"From a regulatory perspective, adherence to GCP is a process
control issue and not a bird-by-bird performance standard issue."
The sentence I highlighted in this paragraph truly exposes the callousness with which poultry are allowed to be treated.
"For example, IPP should determine
1. Establishment employees are breaking the legs of birds to hold the birds in the shackle, squeezing
them into shackles or otherwise mishandling birds while transferring them from the cages to the
2. In cold weather, birds are frozen inside the cages or frozen to the cages themselves; or
3. The birds are dead from heat exhaustion. The main observable symptom of heat stress in poultry
is heavy panting, in addition to dead or dying birds in cages.
NOTE: These examples do not necessarily describe prohibited activities and noncompliance, but can still warrant documentation through an MOI."
As an example of just how differently Poultry are treated by the USDA. Here are some recent actions:
April 15, 2022, Wright City Meat Co, Inc. ... Consequences ... Facility suspended after the ineffective stunning of a cow. (It took them three shots to render the animal unconscious) Ineffective stunning is the most common reason for enforcement actions at a livestock slaughterhouse. Inspections were not resumed until 5 days later.
July 8, 2021, Agri Star Meat and Poultry, LLC ... Consequences ... MOI after 317 birds smothered to death when a machine operator continued to try to run a machine that was not functioning properly. No further action was noted in the USDA report.
May 25, 2021, Koch Foods, LLC ... Consequences ... NR after Inspector noted 24 live birds enter the scalder due to lack of communication between facility employees, line restarted on the same shift. No further action was noted in the USDA report.
But why not just make the HMSA cover birds? Aren't they animals too? Check out this video link to see the line speed that is an industry standard (the video is graphic but it is an industry video, they are proud of it). As is obvious in the video, there is absolutely no time for workers to focus on an individual bird's welfare. The only way they could even pretend to do so would be to slow the line to a crawl. It is all about production speed and money and big animal ag companies are not about to allow the hit to their profits that actually trying to treat the birds humanely would cause.