Chickens and turkeys should be covered by the same law as cows, pigs and other animals when they are slaughtered, the Humane Society of the United States said in a lawsuit filed Monday against the Agriculture Department.
Before becoming T-bone steak or pork ribs, livestock must be stunned or otherwise unable to feel pain, according to the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. However, the Agriculture Department maintains that the 47-year-old law does not apply to poultry.
The Humane Society argues that common methods of slaughtering poultry are not only cruel; they increase the risk of contamination that leads to food poisoning. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Typically, birds arriving at a slaughterhouse are dumped from their crates onto conveyor belts, then shackled upside down on a conveyor line, the Humane Society said. The humane slaughter act specifically prohibits shackling and hanging of conscious animals by their legs, the Humane Society said.
Birds are then dipped into electrically charged water to stun them, their necks are cut by machine and they are dipped into a scalding vat to loosen feathers, according to the lawsuit.
Studies show that birds defecate and inhale when they are stunned, contaminating the water of the stun bath as well as birds themselves, the Humane Society argued.
“Consumers may well be at an increased risk for contracting a potentially life-threatening foodborne illness,” said Michael Greger, the group’s director of public health and animal agriculture.
A poultry industry spokesman called the lawsuit a publicity stunt for Thanksgiving, when people will eat an estimated 45 million turkeys.
“We do have humane handling and slaughter in the industry,” said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. “The system is set up to stun the bird so that it is insensitive to pain when it is killed, and it should be dead before it enters the scalder.”
Examples mentioned in the lawsuit are exceptions, he said.
Had Congress intended to cover poultry, the law would have said so specifically, Lobb said.
The law applies to “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine and other livestock.” In the lawsuit, the Humane Society argues that poultry counts as livestock.
Agriculture Department spokesman Steven Cohen said a separate law, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, governs inspection of poultry processing plants.
The law ensures “birds are slaughtered in a manner that’s consistent with good commercial practices and they are handled in a way that minimizes discomfort and accidental injury,” Cohen said.
About 9 billion birds are slaughtered for food every year in the U.S., the Humane Society said, citing Agriculture Department estimates. About 36 million cattle, 100 million pigs and 3 million sheep and lambs are slaughtered annually, the group said.
The Humane Society was joined in the lawsuit by another animal rights group, San Francisco-based East Bay Animal Advocates, and five individual consumers.