A coalition including the Humane Society of the United States today sued the Trump administration for allowing chicken slaughterhouses to dial up the breakneck speeds at which they kill birds.
The increase, announced in 2018, allows slaughterhouses that receive a waiver from the administration to increase slaughter speed by 25 percent, to a rate of up to 175 birds per minute—that’s nearly three birds being killed per second. Slaughtering animals at this rate is not only inhumane, it makes working conditions even more dangerous for workers and compromises the safety of the food that Americans put on their table.
When the change was announced, federal regulations already allowed slaughterhouses to kill chickens as fast as 140 birds per minute. At such high speeds, workers struggling to keep up with the rapidly moving slaughter lines grab the birds and slam them into shackles, injuring the animals’ fragile legs. Some birds miss the throat-cutting blade and enter the scalder—a tank of extremely hot water—alive and fully conscious, resulting in a terrible, inhumane death. The fast speeds also jeopardize the food supply, as birds who are treated inhumanely are more likely to be badly bruised or die due to causes other than slaughter, which would make them unfit for consumption under current food safety regulations.
Conditions in slaughterhouses are also brutal for workers who are forced to toil extremely fast, shoulder-to-shoulder, performing repetitive motions in cold, slippery conditions and using dangerous equipment. According to Labor Department data, injury rates for poultry workers are 60 percent higher than the national average for all private industry, and illness rates are more than five times as high. In fact, a recent investigative report found that many of the plants the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is now allowing to run at faster line speeds have a history of serious accidents, including deaths. And just last month there were fatal worker accidents at two chicken slaughterhouses operating at increased speeds.
The agency knows fully well the pitfalls of operating slaughter lines at these lightning speeds. In 2014, under the Obama administration, FSIS considered a similar increase and decided not to implement it after concerns were raised by animal protection groups and worker safety organizations. Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, the same agency chose to sweep these concerns under the rug and did an about-face.
Our lawsuit, filed with a coalition that includes Animal Outlook, Mercy for Animals, Government Accountability Project and Marin Humane, questions the agency’s failure to adequately explain this about-face, and argues that before making its decision, the FSIS failed to provide Americans with advance notice, as is required under law, and the opportunity to comment on the change. It also argues that the agency, in implementing this change, didn’t comply with federal law that requires it to consider the environmental impacts of its decision.
What is also alarming is that this is not the first time that the administration has acted to deregulate animal slaughter—last year, FSIS finalized a federal rule that allows some pig slaughterhouses to operate without any limits on the speeds at which they kill pigs. It also turned critical duties related to inspections over to company employees, who are under enormous pressure and vulnerable to firing if they flag problems.
We cannot allow this pattern of deregulating animal slaughter to continue. Most animals raised on factory farms already suffer immensely during their short lives. Chickens used for meat are genetically manipulated to grow at an unnaturally fast rate, are crowded into barren warehouses, and when they reach slaughter weight at approximately six weeks of age, they are violently caught by the legs and shoved into tightly packed cages to be trucked to slaughter. During transport, many birds die from extreme temperatures and the trauma experienced during catching and crating. The least we can do is not further exacerbate the suffering they already endure at the end of life.
With this lawsuit our coalition is putting the Trump administration on notice: the American public is watching and will not stand for increased cruelty in the food supply chain. Increasingly, consumers are demanding that animals raised for food be treated more humanely, and food corporations are responding to that demand by implementing their own animal welfare reforms. We will not allow our government, working to please a few greedy outliers in the food industry who care only about fattening their bottom lines, to buck that trend.