MORRIS: Big poultry, big cruelty

Today is Chicken Tenders Day, which the News once called Yale’s “single greatest accomplishment.” Hungry students will flock to dining halls for one of Yale’s most popular dishes, providing a fitting opportunity to reflect on how we treat the birds we eat.

Last week The Washington Post revealed that nearly one million live chickens and turkeys are accidentally boiled to death in U.S. slaughterhouses every year. These painful deaths occur largely because slaughter lines move so fast that it is impossible to kill all the birds before they are plunged into scalding water to remove their feathers.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants the slaughter lines to move even faster, at the same time as it dramatically cuts the number of government inspectors monitoring the line.

The USDA is finalizing a proposal to allow the nation’s largest poultry slaughterhouses to speed up their kill lines by 25 percent – from 140 to 175 chickens per minute. At the same time, the proposal seeks to replace 40 percent of USDA inspectors with the poultry producers’ own employees, posing a conflict of interest in asking companies to self-regulate.

Increasing line speed will make painful and improper deaths more common, poultry slaughter experts say. When chickens and turkeys enter the slaughter line, workers shackle the legs of the live birds, hanging them by their feet. The birds move through an electrified water bath intended to stun them unconscious, before an automated blade cuts their throat and they are plunged into a tank of boiling water to loosen the feathers from the carcasses. When the birds are not properly secured in the shackle, they lift their heads, attempting to right themselves, and miss both the electrified water and the automated blade. They are then plunged into the boiling water fully conscious.

It’s easy to count how many birds this happens to because those boiled alive turn bright red, a vivid reminder that their bodies were not drained of blood during slaughter. All birds boiled alive must be discarded.

The USDA says the proposal will reduce slaughter costs for major producers like Tyson’s, Purdue and Pilgrim’s Pride by $256 million each year, and save the USDA $90 million over three years from firing inspectors.

Sadly, the USDA has joined with Big Poultry in making an economic boon out of the heartless treatment of chickens and turkeys. Our nation’s top poultry producers treat the birds as unfeeling production units rather than as sentient beings. This is uncivilized, inhumane and unnecessary.

As Yale students, eating is our most frequent act of consumption and the food choices we make are one of our most direct ways of shaping the world. When it comes to the chicken tenders, there is more at stake than merely what tastes good. The types of food production practices we support will create one type of world or another.

The institutional cruelty of industrial poultry farming is not just bad for the birds – it is bad for our society. The presence of institutionalized cruelty in any form makes society less humane, lowering our ethical threshold. As journalist and speechwriter Matthew Scully writes in his book “Dominion,” “[Animals] are not pieces of machinery, no matter how cost-efficient it may be to treat them as such. Machinery doesn’t cry or feel frightened or lonely. And when man treats him this way, he might as well be a machine himself. Something dies in him, too. Something is lost in a society that rewards and enriches him.”

The USDA’s proposal is particularly galling since it highlights the fact that birds are not included under the Humane Slaughter Act, the federal law designed to decrease the suffering of farm animals during slaughter. The Humane Slaughter Act requires that food animals be rendered “insensitive to pain” before they are shackled and killed. It covers cows, calves, pigs, sheep and goats – but not birds. If birds were covered, boiling birds alive would be an “egregious” violation that could result in criminal charges. The shackling of conscious birds and the bone breaking that regularly results would also be prohibited.

Are birds not deserving of humane slaughter too?

We are a society that prides itself on its values. But values that are not acted upon are not values at all. How we treat animals, who are some of the most vulnerable among us, is a measure of our decency and moral progress. We can do better. The Obama Administration can start by rejecting the USDA’s cruel proposal.

Viveca Morris is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu.

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