California’s Prop 2 took effect on New Year’s Day, and we’ve been urging major food retailers to honor the letter and spirit of the law by not buying or selling any animal products that come from caged farm animals, with a particular focus on laying hens in cages. While continuing to advance the argument that cage-free production should be the minimum standard in California, and eventually the nation, The HSUS is also today shining a spotlight on the lives and deaths of laying hens in the Midwest. Specifically, after reviewing the report and footage from one of our brave undercover investigators who worked at Butterfield Foods Co. – a slaughter plant in Minnesota – I say, without hesitation, that laying hens are some of the most abused animals on the planet. They face abject misery and privation throughout their lives and then terror and inhumane treatment during transport and slaughter.
Our investigation, with results and footage released to the press, law enforcement and the U. S. Department of Agriculture, pulls back the curtain to expose the final, painful misery that “spent” hens – whose bodies are worn out by egg production and who are then sold for cheap meat – endure at Butterfield. This is, to my knowledge, the first-ever look inside a “spent” hen slaughter plant, and it reveals that birds shipped from battery cage operations throughout the United States and Canada arrive battered and emotionally helpless, with many severely weakened or debilitated by broken bones and starvation. The company has a painfully untrue motto – “We Love Old Hens.”
After a lifetime of being locked inside cages so cramped they can’t even spread their wings, these long-suffering animals are crammed inside transport cages that immobilize them. They are trucked to slaughter through all kinds of weather conditions, and always with no food or water. Birds who arrive at the plant over the weekend are simply left to languish on the trucks until the killing shifts resume again on Monday, with the birds crushed up against one another and having to endure the worst sort of overcrowding. If hens in battery cages are like eight people jammed in a tiny elevator and never able to get out, add five or six more birds (or for the analogy, five or six more people to the elevator), and you get a sense of the heart-rending and sickening overstocking of the animals in the cages on the trucks that go to the slaughter plant.
This plant—like nearly all others in the poultry industry—kills birds in an archaic process that would be illegal under federal law if the animals were cattle or pigs. And chickens and turkeys represent more than nine out of 10 of all farm animals slaughtered in our country. But since the USDA exempts birds from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), these laying hens are not even required to be rendered insensible to pain before they’re killed.
Among the animal welfare problems we documented:
- Each day many birds were scalded alive and forced upside down into tanks of scorching hot water in which they drown. In just one 30-minute period, the HSUS investigator witnessed approximately 45 such animals. This possible violation of Minnesota’s anti-cruelty code has been reported to local authorities.
- Hens were removed from crates and shackled upside down while alive and fully conscious. Their removal began with workers jabbing metal hooks into the densely packed transport cages to rip hens out of the cages by their legs.
- Birds were ineffectively stunned and inhumanely killed. After being shackled, the line of upside-down birds moved through an electrified trough of water designed to stun them—although that was not always the outcome.
While chickens don’t have USDA protection under the HMSA, the federal agency acknowledges that there are higher-welfare methods of slaughter available. For example, controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) is widely acknowledged as entailing less animal suffering. The USDA notes that, “The general consensus among many researchers in the United States, the European Union (EU), and Japan is that CAS is more humane than the current method of electrical stunning.”
While Prop 2 highlighted the urgent need for reform in the way egg-laying hens are treated on factory farms – itself a very acute problem in Minnesota, where millions of birds languish in cages that do not even meet the voluntary and deficient space allotment standards called for by the United Egg Producers – our new investigation highlights the urgent need for reform in chicken slaughter plants. It’s long past time that this industry – which principally slaughters broiler birds for meat – recognize that the days of terrorizing, injuring, and slaughtering fully conscious animals must come to an end. How can the leaders in the poultry sector, with a straight face and a clear conscience, continue to defy the universally accepted principle that animals killed for food must at least be slaughtered as quickly and painlessly as possible? If there are not serious and comprehensive changes throughout the industry, then consumers must consider taking their business elsewhere.
The footage below will turn your stomach, and it should shock your conscience. No small amount of protein is worth this kind of pain that these poor animals endure.
P.S. I’ll also note that many battery cage egg operations cannot even sell their “spent” hen meat for human consumption, because the birds are so sick and battered and their bones so weak that the chicken is splintered with shards of bone. Where this meat from the Butterfield plant is going is beyond me, but consumers beware.