Matt's Blog: The AVMA Must Take Action to Prevent Brutal Depopulation of Animals on Farms During COVID-19 Crisis

December 18, 2020

a pig in a cage

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA President & CEO

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, slaughterhouses quickly became hotspots for the virus due to unsafe working conditions. Nearly 51,480 slaughterhouse workers have tested positive for the virus, and more than 260 employees have died since April. The severe impact on slaughterhouse workers resulted in plant shutdowns and backlogs of slaughter-bound animals on farms. With nowhere for these animals to go, companies began resorting to the mass killing —or “depopulation”—of millions of healthy farm animals, particularly pigs and chickens.

One especially cruel method of depopulation is ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+), which is as brutal as it sounds. To kill animals using VSD+, workers shut off barns’ ventilation systems with the animals sealed inside—commonly adding heat and/or steam—so the animals slowly die from overheating or suffocation. This process is akin to leaving an animal in a hot car with the heater set on high, essentially baking the animal to death.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) current depopulation guidelines, considered to be the industry standard, suggest that VSD+ is only appropriate as a last resort in extraordinary circumstances involving urgency and severe infectious or zoonotic disease outbreak among animals. Despite this specific guidance, the AVMA has been deafeningly silent in response to emerging evidence that food companies are using cruelty as a pathway to convenience, callously choosing the efficiency and cost-savings of VSD+ while ignoring more humane methods listed in the AVMA’s euthanasia and depopulation guidelines.

Any killing method that does not cause immediate loss of consciousness is widely considered inhumane and unacceptable. In a 2015 presentation to the United States Animal Health Association (USAHA), Eric Gingerich DVM states that VSD is “not considered humane,” results in “longer periods of time for suffering compared to other methods,” and may be ineffective in killing all animals. Current AVMA depopulation guidelines also cite a study demonstrating that pigs survived up to 16 hours after ventilation shutdown. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) — an intergovernmental body responsible for improving animal health worldwide — does not recognize ventilation shutdown in any form, even for emergency disease control.

VSD, in all its forms, is cruel and should never be used, but longstanding agriculture industry conditions and practices that set the stage for this crisis and prompted the use of VSD are just as objectionable. The failures of this industry have been on greater display throughout the pandemic, further opening the public’s eyes to the unsustainability and cruelty of factory farming. The system’s production and slaughter rates are too fast, the profit margins are too thin, and there are too many animals raised in too little space with extreme growth rates—all resulting in a process that not only bends but breaks under any disruption. If the wellbeing and protection of animals, workers and farmers had been considered in this system’s design, countless farm animals would not have experienced unconscionable suffering.

Animal advocates, farmers, leaders and the general public must work together to stop the horrific abuses of animals and workers that have been both exposed and expanded during the pandemic. We must transition to a more compassionate and sustainable food system and require Congress to ensure that federal tax dollars are used to support more humane food production, not to reimburse companies that choose the most inhumane depopulation methods.

This important industrial and cultural transition will not happen overnight, but the AVMA can take immediate action to prevent the use of VSD by reclassifying the inhumane practice, in all its forms, as “not recommended” within their depopulation guidelines. This week, the ASPCA joined Vets Against VSD and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) in a petition signed by over 2,900 veterinary professionals and advocates asking the AVMA to take this active stand against VSD.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and countless animals at risk, the AVMA must act on its fundamental responsibility to reject VSD in all its forms and advocate using the more humane methods they themselves recommend. The AVMA’s decision not to denounce this cruel practice gives the industry and its unacceptable practices an AVMA-sanctioned shield. There’s simply nothing about the COVID-19 virus or the production of food that justifies this inaction in the face of such horrific cruelty to animals.