Matt’s Blog: Why Is the AVMA Condoning—Not Preventing—Farm Animal Suffering?

February 7, 2022


By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker and Kitty Block

Like many industries, meat production has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, when outbreaks at slaughterhouses caused shutdowns and left enormous backlogs of slaughter-bound animals in the pipeline. The overcrowded conditions in which standard industrial farms already keep animals meant they couldn’t hold excess for long. In a shameful response, some companies directed producers and workers to mass-kill—or “depopulate”—hundreds of thousands of healthy farm animals using a crude and heartless method known as ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+). 

In this nightmarish process, thousands of animals are sealed in a barn with the ventilation turned off and the heat up high, pumping in steam and/or gas, raising the temperature in some instances as high as 170°F. This treatment is like leaving an animal in a hot car—with the windows sealed and the heater turned up—essentially baking the animal to death. 

Given the flagrant cruelty of VSD+, we are stunned and disappointed that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)—the nation’s largest veterinary trade group—has not amended its position on the deliberate heating to death of farm animals especially considering its firm stance against leaving pets in hot cars.  

The AVMA’s current depopulation guidelines, which are considered the industry standard and referenced in industry policies and protocols, condone the use of VSD+ “in constrained circumstances” for pigs and chickens in rare situations of acute urgency—namely those involving animal disease or zoonotic outbreaks. 

Animal agribusiness has seized on the AVMA’s position to justify using VSD+ to kill healthy animals while ignoring more humane methods listed in the AVMA’s euthanasia and depopulation guidelines.

We cannot fathom how an organization that claims to be dedicated to animal health and welfare can sanction any killing method—even in rare emergency circumstances—that does not include rapid loss of consciousness, which helps prevent extreme suffering. 

On this position, the AVMA stands nearly alone when compared to other veterinary and public health organizations. The World Organisation for Animal Health—an intergovernmental body responsible for improving animal health worldwide—does not recognize ventilation shutdown as appropriate in any circumstance, including emergency disease control. Ventilation shutdown methods have also been condemned by the European Food Safety Authority, which states that, in the case of pigs, the process is likely to be “highly painful” and “must never be used.”

The ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States stand with more than 3,500 veterinary professionals and advocates who signed a petition asking the AVMA to take an active stand against all forms of ventilation shutdown. 

The AVMA, which is holding its annual winter meeting this month in Chicago, can take immediate action to discourage the use of VSD+ in any form by simply reclassifying this inhumane practice as “not recommended” in its depopulation guidelines. 

In addition to rejecting VSD+ in all its forms, this respected veterinary body must acknowledge and address the terrible truth that standard industrial animal rearing practices—like tightly confining animals inside warehouses, often in cages where they’re virtually immobilized—increases the risk of circumstances that will lead to future depopulations. Lack of preparation and prevention is no excuse for intentionally inflicting even more protracted suffering at the end of animals’ lives. 

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, slaughterhouses are still at risk of outbreaks which could subject countless additional pigs and chickens to this atrocious practice and the incalculable pain and misery it causes. In a civilized society, no one—certainly not the AVMA—should let callous disregard for animals stand, and we urge the AVMA to reverse course.

Matt Bershadker is president and CEO of the ASPCA

Kitty Block is president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States

Originally published in The Chicago Tribune