More humane poultry processing also safer for consumers

August 25, 2014 

Hardly a month goes by without one hearing about yet another chicken-meat scandal. Just last week, another 15,000 pounds of chicken were recalled. A month earlier, headlines reported on the final toll of the outbreak in which hundreds of chicken consumers were hospitalized across 29 states from food poisoning.

Yet the problem of contaminated poultry goes far beyond just one or two agribusinesses that make the news. In fact, Consumer Reports revealed in 2014 that virtually all – 97 percent – of chicken breasts in the United States harbor potentially harmful fecally transmitted pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.

So why all this fecal matter on our nation’s nuggets?

In many states, chickens are confined by the tens of thousands inside huge, dank warehouses in which they have little to do but eat and sit down – in their own feces. Part of the problem is that these chickens – animals who are normally quite athletic – have been genetically manipulated to grow so obese so fast that many can’t take more than a few pitiful steps before collapsing under the enormous weight of their oversized breasts.

A renowned animal science expert and consultant to the livestock industry, Temple Grandin, addressed the problem bluntly: “Today’s poultry chicken has been bred to grow so rapidly that its legs can collapse under the weight of its ballooning body. It’s awful.”

As is the amount of time the animals, as a consequence, spend wallowing in waste – and not only their own. When producers replace a flock of birds in a shed with new birds, the manure-laden litter from past flocks is, as a standard practice, left on the ground. So every couple of months, new birds are living on top of prior generations’ manure.

To make matters worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was proposing rules that could have further increased contamination. The agency proposed speeding up poultry slaughter lines while at the same time removing hundreds of government inspectors. At these slaughter plants, workers often haphazardly shackle live birds on already fast-moving lines. It’s such an imprecise process that nearly a million birds, according to the USDA, are inadequately stunned and slaughtered every year; those animals end up in “defeathering tanks” – essentially vats of scalding-hot water – while conscious. As a first order of business in those tanks, the birds can let loose all their waste. It’s the same water that countless other birds will then be put through, spreading feces from bird to bird.

So faster-moving lines could mean even more birds entering the scalding tanks while conscious, which means more fecal contamination and, as the Washington Post described, more potential for animal suffering and food safety problems at chicken slaughter plants. USDA is backing off its poultry line acceleration proposal, but is still aiming to cut 800 government inspectors at poultry plants, allowing further self-regulation in the chicken industry.

As Americans grapple with a long string of meat recalls, perhaps it’s time to also look at the problem’s root. Perhaps it’s time we start recognizing that mistreating farm animals can be bad for both us and them. Accepting this would likely lead many to eat less meat – by eating more plant-based meals – and also to reduce the amount of suffering we inflict. When we start moving in that direction, toward a more humane society, we’ll all be better off.

Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. On Twitter: http://twitter.com/pshapiro.

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