Sep 12, 2022
On June 7, 2021, a slaughterhouse inspector with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported a violation at a Tyson Foods-owned poultry plant in Nashville, Arkansas. The inspector saw a bird on the slaughter line "vigorously flapping" as it headed towards the "scald vat." That wasn't supposed to happen.
Slaughterhouses are sites of round-the-clock pain, as employees endure punishing working conditions, and as animals go to their deaths en masse: 33 million cows, 128 million pigs, and more than 9 billion chickens were slaughtered for food in 2021 alone.
Poultry slaughter is meant to be a well-choreographed process. The scald vat is a boiling vat of hot water situated at the end of the kill line, designed to defeather chickens after they've already been slaughtered. Strung up by their ankles in metal shackles and moving fast down the conveyor belt, birds are supposed to die by "exsanguination" after passing through the kill machine, which runs automated rotary blades across the animals' throats. Birds are supposed to bleed to death before they enter the scalder for defeathering; and before they bleed to death, they're supposed to be stunned immobile by an electrified water bath even earlier on the line. Electrocution, slaughter, defeathering. In that order.
But the inspector in Arkansas watched one bird, and then a second, and then "a third and fourth flapping bird" enter the scalder after having missed the knife, and the employee meant to serve as "Back Up Killer" had evidently missed the still-conscious birds, so, against both slaughterhouse protocol and federal law, these birds were boiled alive.
This inspection report from Arkansas is just one of dozens of firsthand accounts detailing what USDA representatives witnessed last summer at 300 poultry slaughterhouses currently under federal inspection. Available on a USDA-run website, these testimonies chronicle the many legal and illegal abuses chickens endure at slaughter, among them broken bones, suffocation, and the acute distress of being kicked, thrown, or stepped on. The details are, often, grisly: birds whose heads were "engorged with blood," birds whose "skin had been torn off," birds--still living--strewn amongst carcasses and "decapitated heads" on the blood-soaked floor.
Slaughterhouses are sites of round-the-clock pain, as employees endure punishing working conditions, and as animals go to their deaths en masse: 33 million cows, 128 million pigs, and more than 9 billion chickens were slaughtered for food in 2021 alone. What the USDA's slaughter inspections reveal is just how much can go horribly wrong during animal slaughter--and just how little of it is public knowledge.
When the USDA publicly released its own records of slaughterhouse violations in January of this year, it didn't do so to relieve the suffering of animals. In 2019, the USDA and one of its eight branches--the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)--came under fire in a lawsuit alleging these agencies had violated the Freedom of Information Act, which enshrines "the right of the public to information." According to the plaintiffs--animal advocacy nonprofits Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Sanctuary--the USDA and FSIS had systematically refused to disclose "key records" demonstrating their oversight of the federal laws that protect food safety and animal welfare. The records--reports of violations documented during FSIS inspections at US slaughterhouses--reveal a great deal about the scope of the laws governing the treatment of animals raised for food, and about the grim realities of producing meat at an industrial scale, as seen through the eyes of federal agents whose aim is to uphold a regime dedicated to the safety and quality of food.
After an attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed, which the court denied, the USDA and FSIS settled in 2021, agreeing to proactively publish FSIS inspection reports for three years. The release of these slaughterhouse violations is a breakthrough, because it's almost impossible to see what happens inside slaughterhouses in the first place.
Ag-gag laws--also known as "farm security" laws--protect operations like farms, feedlots, and processing plants from potential whistleblowers and exposes by making it a criminal offense to take photos or videos at agricultural facilities without the consent of the owner. Industrial farms tend to support ag-gag legislation in order to tamp down on undercover investigations for fear of bad press and further regulation.
With such strict laws in place, the USDA's disclosure of inspection records is a rare breakthrough. The USDA's records of poultry slaughterhouses are particularly inured to bias because these inspections don't monitor the welfare of birds at slaughter--just the safety and quality of their meat.
What these inspectors observe is dependable. When they describe the chickens "aggressively chucked" onto the conveyer belts, or the chickens "mutilated by the machinery of the automatic cage dumper," or the chickens with "patches of dry, dark yellow skin with missing feathers," they do so for no reason other than to ensure the smooth management of the slaughterhouse's operations.
Although the inspection records leave much to be desired, something is better than nothing. The USDA has agreed to proactively post its slaughterhouse inspection records for the next three years. Meatpacking plants don't have glass walls--but until 2024, at least, their walls will be a little less opaque.
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