Nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water, Agriculture Department records show.
Now the USDA is finalizing a proposal that will allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines, with the aim of removing pathogens from the food supply and making plants more efficient. But that would also make the problem of inhumane treatment worse, according to government inspectors and experts in poultry slaughter.
USDA inspectors assigned to the plants say much of the cruel treatment they witness is tied to the rapid pace at which employees work, flipping live birds upside down and shackling their legs. If the birds are not properly secured, they might elude the automated blade and remain alive when they enter the scalder.
Over the past five years, an annual average of 825,000 chickens and 18,000 turkeys died this way, USDA public reports show, representing less than 1 percent of the total processed.
Government inspectors assigned to the plants document these kills, which are easily spotted because the birds' skin becomes discolored.
“One of the greatest risks for inhumane treatment is line speed. You can't always stop the abuse at these speeds,” said Mohan Raj, a British-based poultry-slaughter expert who helps advise the European Food Safety Authority. “It's so fast, you blink and the bird has moved away from you.”
The proposal being finalized by the USDA would revamp inspections in poultry plants and increase the maximum line speed — to 175 birds per minute from 140 in chicken plants and to 55 per minute from 45 in turkey plants.
Department officials, who plan to submit a final version of the regulations to the White House for approval, say they do not think the humane handling of poultry will be compromised as the new rules are rolled out across the country.
USDA officials stress that the new system could reduce food-borne pathogens, including salmonella, by using government inspectors more effectively. Officials say salmonella rates have fallen at plants in a pilot program using the new approach. But in a report last month, the Government Accountability Office questioned the validity of the USDA's findings, saying the department's analysis was based on incomplete and antiquated data.
The new rules would apply to what is called the “evisceration” segment of poultry processing, in which dead birds are cleaned, bruised meat is chopped off and food safety checks are conducted. It does not apply directly to the slaughtering process. But if plants wish to boost production by speeding up the processing of birds, more would have to be slaughtered.
More than two dozen chicken and turkey plants have adopted the new inspection procedures, including the faster line speeds, under the 15-year-old pilot program run by the USDA called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). The new approach also involves replacing about 40 percent of government inspectors with company employees.
Inspectors and animal-welfare activists say the proposed staffing changes would make poultry more vulnerable because fewer government inspectors would be positioned along the line, where they can flag birds that have suffered abuse, including excessive broken bones and improper kills.
Birds that have been boiled alive can be identified by the cherry-red color of their skin, which results because their bodies were not drained of blood during slaughter. Birds that died this way must be discarded, because their meat is saturated with blood and can breed bacteria or disguise the presence of disease.
Philip Derfler, deputy administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the department thinks a roving government inspector, who is given latitude under the proposal to move up and down the processing line, will be better able to spot abuse. Also, Derfler said, the USDA has stepped up humane-handling enforcement in poultry plants in recent years and is preparing to post inspection reports on its website when plants are found in violation.
“There is some basis that people might say that the increased line speed in HIMP plants might adversely affect the humane handling of the birds, and we think that's totally wrong,” Derfler said. “We think with the various things we have done in the HIMP system, we think if anything, it is at least as good as the current system, maybe better.”