WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims an undercover investigation at a Minnesota poultry processing facility shows inhumane treatment of chickens.

The investigation and accompanying video was the work of an undercover operator during a 57-day stint working at Butterfield Foods Co. in Butterfield, a town of just under 600 people 126 miles southwest of Minneapolis. HSUS says the investigation, which took place in late 2014, shows how chickens at the facility, which HSUS said processes about 85,000 birds a day, are sometimes subjected to scalding while still alive. Paul Shapiro, HSUS vice president of farm animal protection, said the actions depicted in the video happen throughout the chicken slaughter industry.

“Just as the egg industry is starting to move away from the extreme confinement of animals in cages, the slaughter industry ought to be moving toward methods of slaughter that don’t involve this type of risk where huge numbers of animals are being killed in unimaginable ways,” Shapiro said in a call with reporters. 

The method of slaughter used at Butterfield involves using a blade to cut the neck of a chicken before it is put into a tank of scalding water to remove its feathers. However, the HSUS video showed some of the chickens were not killed by the blade, and were still alive when entering the scalding tank.

Since the heart of the chicken is still beating, blood rushes to the skin, giving the bird a red appearance. HSUS said it is industry practice to remove these so-called “redbirds” from the processing lines. Its undercover investigator is said to have removed 45 such birds in 30 minutes working the phase of the line immediately after the scalding process.

Shapiro said USDA inspectors did not witness the high number of redbirds because their positioning in the facility allowed workers to remove the birds before USDA inspection points.

“It’s imperative that their inspectors go and look at what‘s happening at these points, because these are really critical points in the slaughter process for determining whether there are redbirds or not,” Shapiro said.

HSUS also criticized how the hens were transported to Butterfield, saying they were often stuffed onto trucks and their mobility was severely limited.  

Shapiro said many of things seen in the video could be changed if chickens were included under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. While the legislation, which is enforced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “requires the proper treatment and humane handling of all food animals slaughtered in USDA inspected slaughter plants,” it does not apply to chickens or other birds.

Previous efforts by HSUS involving the poultry industry have focused on egg-laying hens. The organization worked with the United Egg Producers in an unsuccessful attempt to produce federal cage production standards. More recently, it was successful in pushing legislation in California requiring all eggs sold in the state to be from cages where egg-laying hens had sufficient space to spread their wings.

In August, USDA unveiled a new inspection process that focuses on contamination rather than looking for visual defects, but that new system is not considered a contributing factor in the issues detailed by HSUS. In an email to Agri-Pulse, Mary Beth Sweetland, senior director for research and investigation with HSUS, said USDA could do more to ensure proper equipment operation.

“(T)here is nothing about the new inspection system that alters USDA inspectors' obligation to ensure compliance with good commercial practices including observing that stunning and bleeding equipment were operating properly,” Sweetland said.

Butterfield Co. processes spent hens, or hens that have seen their ability to produce eggs diminish. In many cases, these kinds of hens are processed for pet and animal feed, but some facilities – like Butterfield – process the meat for human consumption. Unlike broiler chickens, which are specifically intended for meat production, spent hens can be purchased for pennies per pound and are seen as a lower quality meat used in soups and dishes such as pot pies.

Butterfield and the National Chicken Council did not respond to requests for comment on this story.


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