Eastern Shore birds deserve a better end

July 12, 2006|By PAUL SHAPIRO

Nearly 300 million chickens are raised for meat in Maryland each year, and the Delmarva Peninsula is widely regarded as the birthplace of the modern poultry industry.

Contemporary poultry production's roots here date back to the 1920s, when Eastern Shore resident Cecile Steele reportedly ordered 50 chickens for her backyard flock. After accidentally receiving 500 birds, she began to experiment with mass chicken production.

Today, the Eastern Shore again has the opportunity to become a poultry pioneer by embracing new slaughter technology that would make the deaths of its fowl and the lives of its workers more bearable.

About a billion birds pass through slaughter plants in the Delmarva region each year, and virtually all of them are subjected to a slaughter process that an increasing number of experts recognize as out-of-date and inhumane.

But the poultry industry now finds itself with an opportunity to implement a technology that would reduce animal suffering and improve working conditions for employees. While no plants in the area have eliminated the conventional method of electrically shocking the birds before cutting their throats, there is some movement on this issue in the industry.

A Nebraska poultry slaughter company has implemented a better system. In a press release, MBA Poultry stated, "There have been numerous studies conducted that lead us to believe that the typical electrical stunning systems used in the U.S. can cause severe welfare problems for millions, and possibly billions, of birds each year."

As MBA Poultry's statement indicates, the evidence is clear: The customary method of slaughtering chickens and other birds in the United States is fraught with severe animal welfare problems that cause unnecessary suffering. The company deserves credit for recognizing this and installing a system already in use in Europe that greatly reduces animal suffering.

The birds slaughtered at MBA Poultry could be considered fortunate when compared with the overwhelming majority of the 9 billion chickens, turkeys and other birds killed for food each year in the United States. For these animals, abuse from the moment they enter the slaughter facility is still the norm.

One of these abuses involves being shackled upside-down while fully conscious. This is a painful and terrifying process for the animals, many of which are suffering from broken legs or painful leg disorders caused by their unnaturally rapid growth. After shacking, the birds are electrocuted into immobility, but not unconsciousness. Their throats are then cut, but those that miss the blade drown in tanks of scalding water designed to loosen their feathers.

Although the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act explicitly requires that farm animals be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter, the U.S. Agriculture Department interprets this law in a way that excludes chickens, turkeys and other birds from protection.

As a result of the USDA policy, processors continue to kill billions of birds using inhumane methods that are not permitted for cattle and pigs. The Humane Society of the United States has a lawsuit pending challenging the USDA policy.

While discussing electric stunning systems, University of Georgia poultry scientist Bruce Webster recently said, "The current dumping-shackling-electrical stunning process is a dinosaur." He suggested that using gas mixtures that cause less suffering is the future for the poultry industry.

Mr. Webster refers to controlled-atmosphere stunning (CAS), one of the most promising poultry welfare improvements today. CAS renders the animals unconscious before they are shackled, averting much of the suffering rampant in U.S. slaughter plants.

Renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin also has endorsed CAS, listing its numerous animal welfare benefits and concluding, "The U.S. poultry industry should move toward controlled-atmosphere stunning."

The time is overdue to give these birds a better end, especially in the region that gave birth to the modern poultry industry. The Eastern Shore's slaughter plants should stop using an archaic and cruel slaughter method when far better alternatives are in use. Both the industry and the birds would be better served by a switch to CAS.

Paul Shapiro is the director of the Factory Farming Campaign of the Humane Society of the United States. His e-mail is pshapiro@hsus.org.

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