Statement on COVID-19-Related Depopulation of Farm Animals

May 4, 2020

NEW YORK – With COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses resulting in plant shutdowns and backlogs of slaughter-bound animals on farms, hundreds of millions of pigs, chickens, and cattle are or will be killed, often using inhumane methods that cause prolonged distress and suffering. Most farms now raise such massive numbers of animals in intensive confinement, using breeds with unnaturally fast growth rates, that there is no flexibility to hold animals longer than planned. The factory farming system’s singular focus on efficiency has now forced a horrific choice on our society: unsafe, high-speed slaughter that puts workers’ lives and animal welfare at risk or gruesome forms of mass "depopulation.”

The terms “depopulation” and “euthanasia” are often being conflated so it is important to properly distinguish them. “Depopulation” is the swift destruction of an entire flock or herd of animals due to sudden and urgent circumstances and has typically been employed in the wake of natural disasters and disease outbreaks. “Euthanasia” is a painless or near-painless form of killing employed to spare a sick, injured, or diseased animal further – or anticipated - pain and suffering.

We believe that any form of animal killing – euthanasia, depopulation, or slaughter – must always be undertaken as humanely as possible. The ASPCA is particularly concerned with ventilation shut down and water-based foam methods of depopulation. Ventilation shutdown for poultry and pigs involves shutting off barns’ ventilation systems with animals sealed indoors—and sometimes adding heat— so animals die from some combination of hyperthermia, carbon dioxide, and other gases that quickly accumulate in the barns. Their death is caused by heat stress and/or suffocation. This process is inhumane and extremely distressing for the animals who can take many hours to die. Water-based foam depopulation methods – often used in the poultry industry – essentially drown or suffocate animals. Adapted from firefighting foam, the foam obstructs the animal’s airway and causes death over several stressful and agonizing minutes. Indeed, neither ventilation shut down nor water-based foam are approved by the World Organisation for Animal Health, even in extreme cases. In 2017 the ASPCA, alongside our veterinarians, asked the AVMA to ban these practices in their depopulation guidelines. Regrettably, they did not. The USDA should act now to prohibit these cruel practices from being deployed on an unprecedented scale.

The mass killings now taking place are a tragic waste of animal life, causing an abhorrent amount of avoidable suffering; they graphically reveal that the factory farming system is fundamentally frail, flawed, and cruel. For the sake of the animals, as well as workers and farmers whose lives and livelihoods are in peril, we must invest COVID-19 relief and other government funding into a more compassionate and resilient food system. The USDA and Congress must provide meaningful support for farmers raising animals more humanely, or growing produce and plant-based proteins. Higher welfare farming is not only better for animals; those practices are less likely to contribute to the emergence and spread of pandemics like the one we face today. Members of the public can help by speaking up for farm animals and shopping for more plant-based and welfare-certified products from local farms and online sources, listed on the ASPCA’s Shop With Your Heart directories.