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The Case for a New Technology to Help Slaughterhouse Workers

While the meat industry is receiving its massive $16 billion federal COVID-19 bailout, the USDA and Congress should also enact policies and allocate funds that would phase out archaic electrical slaughter methods in favor of CAS.

We owe it to workers and animals to make this crucial, commonsense change. (Photo: Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian)

We owe it to workers and animals to make this crucial, commonsense change. (Photo: Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian)

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a spotlight on the brutal conditions that workers in chicken slaughterhouses endure, including an unsanitary, unhealthy work environment. Fortunately, there’s a better system that would create improved conditions for workers (and animals), which Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should support.

According to the USDA, over 9 billion chickens were slaughtered for human consumption in the United States last year. When the birds reach slaughter weight, hired crews grab them by the legs, three or four per hand, and throw them into crates before loading the crates onto trucks. When the birds arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are dumped onto conveyer belts where workers in dark rooms and cramped quarters hang them upside down by forcing their legs into moving shackles. Since shackling is painful and traumatic, the chickens routinely flap their wings in an attempt to escape, which can lead to broken bones and dislocated joints.

Terrified birds scratch and claw at the workers as they struggle.

The shackles drag the birds through an electrified water tank to immobilize them, but the U.S. electrical settings are not sufficient to consistently render the birds unconscious. They’re then moved along to a mechanical neck slicer, which is meant to kill the birds, before being submerged into a tank of scorching hot water to loosen their feathers. However, since the automated knife can miss struggling or improperly shackled birds, some may be fully conscious and end up being scalded alive.

Terrified birds scratch and claw at the workers as they struggle. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, during the shackling process, workers can get covered in blood, feces and pathogens from the chickens. The United States Government Accountability Office notes that chicken slaughter employees continue to face dangers at work, and workers had some of the highest number of severe injuries compared to other industries.

Some in the poultry industry, however, are looking for ways to improve the conditions for employees and the treatment of animals by shifting to a better system: Controlled Atmosphere Stunning. In a CAS plant, chickens are left in their transport crates, as they are conveyed through an air-sealed tunnel. There, chickens are slowly induced into an unconscious state using a precise mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in oxygen. Using the CAS system, chickens are not shackled until after they are insensible.

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For worker safety, CAS is far superior to conventional slaughter methods. Handling birds only after they are unconscious prevents injuries associated with repeated handling of thrashing chickens. CAS systems are cleaner working environments, as the birds are not moving so they produce less feather dander and no fecal droppings. 

Under the electrified water system, employees in the “live hang area” work in inadequate lighting (darkness is thought to calm the live chickens). According to OSHA, the fast-paced nature of grabbing and shackling multiple struggling birds combined with workers having a difficult time seeing can lead to injuries from slipping, falling and cuts. Because workers in CAS plants aren’t handling conscious chickens, better lighting can be provided.

The animal welfare benefits are also significant. World-renowned animal welfare scientist and Colorado State University professor Dr. Temple Grandin, says that CAS results in less stress for birds. A poultry industry publication notes that CAS “has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for attaining consistency in terms of good animal welfare and meat quality.”

While only a tiny percentage of chickens in the United States are killed by CAS, some of the largest chicken companies and several smaller producers are starting to use the method and attest to its superiority. McDonald’s has mandated that all its chicken meat come from CAS slaughterhouses by 2024. 

As we’re calling for better conditions for workers during this COVID-19 crisis, there’s never been a more urgent time for all chicken companies to make this shift. While the meat industry is receiving its massive $16 billion federal COVID-19 bailout, the USDA and Congress should also enact policies and allocate funds that would phase out archaic electrical slaughter methods in favor of CAS. We owe it to workers and animals to make this crucial, commonsense change.

Josh Balk

Josh Balk is vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter: @joshbalk

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