Today, the Kraft Heinz Company — the fifth-largest food company in the world—pledged to abide by a series of welfare reforms for chickens raised for meat. The company joins dozens of other big-brand-name retailers that have made similar pledges since The HSUS launched its Nine Billion Lives campaign and other major animal welfare groups joined together to advocate a series of animal welfare reforms in the chicken industry.
For context: nearly every chicken raised in America today is bred in a way that results in crippling leg deformities and the inability to even walk. Researchers at the University of Arkansas have said that if a human baby grew at the same rate, she’d weigh 660 pounds at just two months old. Chickens are jammed into large warehouses in such densities that they cannot engage in important physical, natural, and social behaviors, even if they could walk. They’re not protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and the primary system for slaughtering them results in hundreds of thousands of birds being dumped into a scalding hot bath while still alive.
Kraft Heinz has joined Burger King, Jack in the Box, Nestle, Unilever, and others in calling on chicken producers to change their ways — requiring better breeding regimens to ensure healthier birds and eliminate the worst suffering these animals endure. They’re requiring better housing systems to provide birds more room and the ability to engage in important natural behaviors, and an overhaul in the slaughter process that doesn’t create the terror and torment that is characteristic of the current system. That system allows chickens to be fully conscious through a process that involves shackling them upside-down, dragging them through an electrified bath, slicing their necks, and then dumping them into scalding water (in too many cases while alive and conscious).
Some of the problems associated with poultry slaughter result from the speed at which the process occurs. Last month, the National Chicken Council – the trade association for the broiler bird industry – actually petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift all line speed restrictions for poultry slaughter. In a poultry slaughter line, employees already work at a breakneck pace, grabbing live birds, turning them upside down, and strapping them onto metal hangers. If done improperly, which common sense tells you is more likely if done at a faster pace, a flailing bird can evade the mechanized killing blade, and the bird can be drowned in the scalding tank. USDA records indicate that this happens well over 800,000 times every year. The NCC has long opposed the idea of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act covering poultry, and in the thinking reflected in this latest petition, we can see why.
Current line speed regulations allow for the killing of 140 birds per minute – a bit of a blur at two birds each second. Just a couple of years ago, the USDA proposed increasing line speeds to 175 birds per minute but backed off the plan after being severely rebuked by lawmakers and the public. But the major players in the bird-killing business, shielded in name by the trade group lobbying for them, were not happy with the agency decision and are hoping the new team presiding at the USDA will allow them to kill birds even faster.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s today pledged to push forward reforms in the way chickens are slaughtered, and that will be an important counterweight to the chicken production sector and its attempts to make a bad system even worse. We applaud that move. But the giant fast-food retailer – a leader in phasing out gestation crates for pigs and cages for laying hens – sidestepped the other critical elements of a comprehensive chicken welfare program. It failed to act on the most severe problem within its poultry supply chain, allowing its suppliers to use breeds of chickens that have chronic health problems; the birds are extremely obese and grow so rapidly that some of them have a hard time standing or walking. And it’s not taking steps other companies, including competitors like Burger King, Jack in the Box, Subway, and Sonic, have taken on space allotments for the birds or enrichments in the barns.
On balance, the announcement from McDonald’s is disappointing, especially in light of its past leadership on other animal welfare issues. We’ll continue to engage with the company, but urge other food retailers looking at the issue of chicken welfare to associate themselves and act in line with the dozens of companies pursuing comprehensive reform.
P.S. The USDA is now accepting comments on the NCC’s disastrous proposal and the agency needs to hear from you. Tell the USDA you are opposed to allowing poultry slaughterhouses to operate at line speeds above the maximum currently allowed by law. Sacrificing the safety of our food supply and the safety of our workers, while ignoring the immense suffering of animals throughout the process, is unacceptable, and contrary to the decision-making that went into the rule finalized on August 21, 2014.