Turkey Abuse

It seems that every year, around the holidays, we are presented with recent undercover footage of turkeys being abused in ways that exceed even the minimal standards of the facilities in which they are raised and processed. The most recent evidence emerged several weeks ago, in the form of a videotape taken by an employee from a West Virginia plant belonging to global “poultry grower” Aviagen, Inc. The turkeys in this most recent investigation had brooms rammed down their throats and used to lift them off the ground; feces forced into their mouths; their heads slammed into metal objects and stomped on by workers’ feet, and so on.

I want to make two points about this and the many similar scandals we have seen in the turkey, cow, pig and chicken industries, thanks to invaluable hidden camera footage:

 

(1) Many people do not know that most turkeys are protected by no laws limiting the cruelty that can be inflicted on them. This is because many states exempt animals used for food from their animal cruelty laws. Similarly, on the federal level, although the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act as written includes birds (because it refers to “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock”, without defining the term “livestock”), it is interpreted by the Department of Agriculture (the agency charged with its implementation) to exclude poultry, and therefore turkeys. Further legal analysis can be found here, and the Humane Society of the United States offers this helpful historical timeline to better understand the evolution of this situation:

 

“In response to the continuing public outcry over the cruel methods recounted in The Jungle, Congress enacted the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 (HMSA) to explicitly require that “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock” be slaughtered in accordance with humane methods. The law deemed only two slaughter methods humane: ritualistic or religious slaughter (such as the Jewish Kosher method), or one in which all livestock are rendered insensible to pain before shackling and slaughtering. In the legislation, Congress explicitly recognized that certain slaughter practices—for example, hanging conscious animals by their legs from metal shackles and slaughtering animals while still fully conscious—cause “needless suffering.”

Fast forward 20 years. In 1978 Congress amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (FMIA), a law, originally passed in response to Sinclair’s novel, that mandated federal inspections and minimum sanitary standards at slaughterhouses processing certain types of animals. The 1978 amendments added a provision to the FMIA that gave the USDA the authority to refuse inspection of meat if “the Secretary finds that any cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules or other equines have been slaughtered or handled…by any method not in accordance with the Act of August 27, 1958 [the HMSA of 1958].” The confusion arose because Congress called this amendment the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978.

What Congress didn’t do in 1978, however, was replace the HMSA of 1958 or remove the original language requiring that “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock” be slaughtered in accordance with humane methods. In other words, the all-important term, “other livestock,” is still included in the definition of the animals covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958.

And yet, despite the fact that the term “other livestock” clearly encompasses animals such as farmed birds and despite the fact that a 1958 edition of Webster’s dictionary defines “livestock” as “domestic animals used or raised on a farm,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture has chosen to exclude chickens, turkeys, and other birds entirely from the act’s protection. 

It’s as if the USDA thinks the original Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 doesn’t exist.”

 

Thus, similar to Guantanamo Bay detainees, turkeys (and chickens, who comprise the vast majority of animals slaughtered in the U.S. for food) are left in a legal no-man’s land. It is crucial that the public pressure the USDA to include turkeys and all other poultry species in their definition of “livestock”. It is also important, in the meantime, for the public to pressure companies to sanction animal-abusing employees. While turkey abuse may not be illegal, it still violates the public image a company aims to project, and may well violate its internal policies.

 

(2) It seems that every time this sort of scandal breaks, the response from company management is that 1) the behavior violates company policy and 2) it is an isolated event which 3) will be cured through a combination of disciplinary measures and employee education. This recent case is no exception.

We need to ask ourselves how many “isolated incidents” are required for an act to become systematic.

Similarly, we must ask ourselves what role company policy and worker education serve in the context of a system that demands large amounts of meat generated quickly and cheaply. The American consumer continues to embrace the comfortable belief that meat can be produced fast, cheap and ready, with no unsavory consequences to animals. This is the true driving force behind the cruelty we are seeing. No amount of internal policy and education on the part of livestock producers will alter this fundamental law of nature. Rather, it is our responsibility, as consumers, to educate ourselves regarding the acts that we are paying others to perpetrate on our behalf.  If these acts make us uncomfortable, chances are we will think twice before continuing to fund them with our pocketbooks.

-Suzanne McMillan

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