Stopping Extreme-Speed Slaughter
ASPCA-commissioned surveys reveal that 94% of Americans agree that animals raised for food deserve to live free from abuse and cruelty. Yet animals suffer immense cruelty and pain in our current farming system. What’s more, consumers, rural communities, farmers, workers and the environment are hurt by the intensive farming systems employed on factory farms and the dangerous, higher-speed slaughter systems employed by increasing numbers of slaughterhouses.
Over the past several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has jeopardized the welfare of animals, workers and consumers by allowing faster slaughter line speeds. “Line speeds” determine how quickly animals can be slaughtered and processed, and even the default speeds—before increases were allowed—were blindingly fast. The new, even faster slaughter speeds threaten the welfare of billions of farm animals like pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows, who are already vulnerable to inhumane handling and unnecessary suffering throughout their lives within the factory farming system. Raising or entirely eliminating line speed limits—which is being done without increasing staff and while reducing inspectors—greatly accelerates production, placing even more pressure on workers to move animals quickly.
Faster line speeds make it more difficult for slaughterhouses to abide by humane handling laws and regulations, putting animals at greater risk of abuse. To keep up, workers may be pressured to use excessive force, including electric prods and rough handling. Failure to properly stun animals ends with conscious animals being painfully killed, including by entering “scalding tanks” of boiling water while fully aware. Animals deserve better treatment in their most vulnerable moments.
Over 9 billion chickens and turkeys are slaughtered annually in the United States. Chickens and turkeys raised on factory farms in the United States already suffer at every stage of their lives. They live in dirty, cramped conditions; are deprived of fresh air, grass and sun, thus preventing them from engaging in natural behaviors; suffer from genetic abnormalities tied to their growth rates and are subjected to torturous transport and slaughter.
In 2014, the USDA attempted to allow chicken and turkey slaughter plants to increase their line speeds through the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). After an extensive public comment process featuring opposition from the ASPCA and other animal welfare, consumer safety and workers’ rights organizations, the agency moved forward with the NPIS, but allowed higher line speed limits only for turkey slaughterhouses. The USDA determined that chicken slaughter line speeds should remain capped at 140 birds per minute. However, efforts by the chicken industry to speed up their operations did not end there.
In December 2017, the National Chicken Council petitioned the USDA to increase slaughter line speed limits. While the ASPCA and many other groups successfully rebuffed this effort, the USDA ultimately announced a waiver system by which chicken slaughterhouses can receive individual permission to increase their lines to up to 175 birds per minute—nearly three birds each second! Along with these increased line speeds, the program also cuts the number of USDA inspectors overseeing tasks such as humane handling and shifts some of those duties to slaughterhouse employees. These additional responsibilities are thrust upon workers without increasing their ranks or necessarily providing adequate training, meaning each worker is expected to handle more animals in the same amount of time with insufficient guidance on how to do it in a humane and safe manner. This is not only dangerous for animal welfare, but for workers’ safety and health, as well as for food safety.
In 2018, the USDA proposed a rule to speed up pig slaughter as well. The New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), similar to NPIS, would allow more animals to be slaughtered in a given amount of time, without increasing staff numbers, and in fact reducing USDA inspectors while shifting some of their duties to slaughterhouse employees. For pigs, unlike for birds, the USDA proposed removing all caps on maximum allowable speed. Average line speeds already resulted in the slaughter of an overwhelming 1,100 pigs per hour, and NSIS could allow plants to kill hundreds more.
As of 2019, nearly 130 million pigs are slaughtered each year in the U.S. But the USDA was set on allowing these facilities to run their lines as fast as they wanted. A 2015 investigation into a high-speed pig slaughterhouse that was operating under the USDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot program (which preceded the USDA’s 2018 proposed rule) found severe abuse and cruel use of force against pigs, partly driven by the frantic pace of production. In response, the USDA acknowledged, “The actions depicted in the video under review are completely unacceptable,” but it nevertheless continued working to expand high-speed slaughter among pig slaughterhouses.
Unfortunately, in October 2019, the USDA published its final rule on high-speed pig slaughter, which took the unprecedented steps of removing all slaughter line speed caps, reducing the number of government inspectors at slaughterhouses by 40%, tasking plant employees with assuming some inspector duties despite no requisite training, and allowing slaughterhouses to design their own food safety programs. This dangerous move jeopardizes the welfare of animals, workers and consumers alike.
In March 2020, the USDA issued—for the first time ever—a line speed waiver for cattle. In April 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA issued a record number of approvals—at least 15—for slaughterhouses to adopt faster speeds.
In June 2020, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General—which acts as an internal watchdog—released an audit report [PDF] that had been requested by 16 members of Congress, examining the worker safety impacts of the high-speed pig slaughter rule. The OIG found that the USDA did not determine whether the worker safety data used to develop the rule were reliable, and recommended that the agency communicate the limitations of the data to the public. The USDA refused to accept the OIG’s recommendation. These findings are alarming on their face, and also raise concerns because the factors that could create unsafe slaughterhouse working conditions also contribute to inhumane conditions for the animals being slaughtered.
Ever-increasing slaughter speeds are just one consequence of the United States’ growing reliance on factory farming. Nearly all the animals we raise for food—whose total numbers are increasing each year—are subjected to this brutal system, which treats them like objects instead of living beings. Increasing line speeds further brutalizes the animals we raise and kill for food.
What You Can Do
Fight Faster Slaughter Speeds: Ask your U.S. senators and representative to block the USDA from continuing to allow high-speed slaughter and to support more humane farming. You can help ensure that future COVID-19 relief funds provided to the agriculture sector reach animal welfare-certified producers and farmers transitioning to higher-welfare systems.
You can also speak out against the cruel mistreatment of billions of chickens, pigs, turkeys and cows by joining the ASPCA Regional Advocacy Field Team (RAFT) today.
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