Animals, Workers and Consumers Suffer Under USDA Slaughter Programs
By Laura Cascada
One of the U.S.'s most dangerous industries is becoming even more hazardous for workers, as animal welfare and consumer safety are also put on the line. The federal government is allowing more and more slaughter plants to kill animals at increasingly dangerous rates.
At the end of September, the Trump administration announced that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be granting waivers allowing chicken slaughter plants to operate at higher kill speeds—going from a staggering 140 birds killed per minute (or more than two birds every single second) to 175.
This misguided decision benefits only the profit-driven meat industry. It does so at the expense of millions of animals, workers and consumers.
Four waivers have recently been granted to chicken plants that will join 20 already killing as many as 175 birds each minute. A gut-wrenching new undercover investigation by my organization, Compassion Over Killing (COK), reveals high-speed horrors behind the closed doors of one of those initial 20 plants, and why these waivers must come to a screeching halt.
Reckless High-Speed Slaughter Exposed
Marking the second time in just three years that a COK investigator has exposed the alarming consequences of high-speed slaughter, this heartbreaking hidden-camera footage was filmed inside Amick Farms in Hurlock, Maryland.
COK's investigator documented workers punching, shoving or throwing birds down the hurtling line; birds slowly drowning in electrified stunning baths during equipment breakdowns; and "red birds," chickens who were not fully bled out before entering the scalding tank—evidence that they entered the tank while still alive.
Amick Farms: High-Speed Chicken Slaughterhouse Exposed www.youtube.com / Compassion Over Killing
"Birds can be seen—still hanging from the shackles—in the water bath. … It is likely that the birds would have experienced prolonged, possibly painful electrical shock while they died of drowning," said Dr. Sara Shields, a farm animal behavior and welfare specialist at Humane Society International, in an expert statement in response to COK's footage. "This situation is totally unacceptable from an animal welfare perspective."
COK submitted its video evidence to local authorities as well as to FSIS, urging the agency to revoke increased line speeds at Amick Farms and other high-speed plants, and stop issuing any further waivers. Though the criteria for receiving a waiver specifies that plants "must be able to demonstrate that … faster line speeds will maintain or improve food safety," among other requirements, COK's new investigation has shown that faster lines lead to enormous animal suffering.
Amick Farms responded to The Washington Post's coverage of the investigation, neglecting to take any real responsibility for the cruelties happening behind the doors of its slaughterhouse.
At current rates of 140 birds slaughtered per minute at most plants, birds are already enduring horrific suffering. In addition, workers, who must keep up with the fast-paced assembly line environment, are forced to take inhumane shortcuts. Yet, with the government's recent announcement, we're moving quickly backward from bad to much worse.
Other COK investigations have documented birds being improperly shackled, dumped onto the conveyor belt and being roughly handled by workers struggling to keep up with rapidly moving lines. Birds suffer during this short and tragic journey to the kill line—already having endured severely overcrowded and filthy conditions on factory farms where they were bred for unnaturally rapid growth.
After these birds spend their lives standing, eating and sleeping in their own waste (often causing painful ammonia burns on their skin) and possibly even having their legs collapse under the unnatural weight of their own genetically manipulated bodies, the life of a "broiler" chicken farmed for food culminates in the horror of painful slaughter.
In addition to the obvious cruelty toward farmed animals in the final moments of their short lives, high-speed slaughter lines also pose grave danger to workers. Many employees at slaughter plants are already vulnerable undocumented workers exploited in one of the nation's most dangerous industries to work. Even at current line speeds, they're often denied bathroom breaks to keep up the pace at all costs, and can suffer painful medical issues and severe injuries—even amputations.
But instead of taking pause to address the dangers of this reckless program, the USDA is expanding it—and not just for chickens.
The Public Speaks Out Against High-Speed Pig Slaughter
In late 2015, a COK undercover investigator worked at Quality Pork Processors (QPP) in Austin, Minnesota, a pig slaughterhouse that exclusively supplies to Hormel, the maker of SPAM and other pork products. Held up as a model plant for the USDA's high-speed pig slaughter program—the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Model Project—QPP kills approximately 1,300 pigs every hour.
The terrifying truth revealed in undercover footage paints a picture very much like the horrors seen at Amick Farms: pigs being beaten, shocked and dragged to the kill floor. Many were also improperly stunned, possibly leading them to enter the scalding tank alive—just like the "red birds" documented at Amick. In this fast-paced environment, pigs covered in feces or pus-filled abscesses were also seen processed for human consumption—all with a USDA inspection seal of approval.
In April 2018, Compassion Over Killing's former investigator, now out from behind the camera after his work at QPP and other slaughterhouses, delivered a quarter-million signatures to the USDA demanding it to end its regressive high-speed pig slaughter program.
Yet the USDA continues to frame its high-speed program as a "modernization" of the meat industry. There's nothing modern about reducing already minimal protections for consumers, animals and workers.
Though animal organizations and workers' rights advocates alike are fighting these reckless speed increases, and the USDA has received more than 83,000 comments regarding this program—many opposed to it—the enormous lobbying power of the National Chicken Council continues has put pressure on the USDA to eliminate speed caps altogether. The USDA has denied a countrywide increase so far, but there's little stopping the agency from granting waivers for individual slaughter plants across the United States.
To stand in solidarity with exploited workers, tortured animals and unknowingly duped consumers, the easiest solution is to leave these cruelly mass-produced animal products off our plates. By voting with our dollars and avoiding these products altogether, we show the USDA, National Chicken Council and huge corporations running these plants that we do not support these cruel practices that harm human and non-human animals in the name of profit.
Allowing slaughterhouses to run their kill lines at even faster speeds is a reckless decision by this administration that will lead to increased animal suffering, continued worker exploitation and compromised food safety. Tell the USDA: Not so fast. Take action and sign the petition at HighSpeedHorrors.com.
Laura Cascada is Director of Corporate Outreach at Compassion Over Killing. She works to increase the availability of vegan options nationwide and bring about positive changes for animals in the meat, dairy and egg industries.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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