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Thinking About the Millions of Turkeys This Thanksgiving

By Michael Markarian

It’s Thanksgiving week, and millions of American families are talking turkey as they prepare for their holiday meals. But they probably haven’t thought much about how 250 million American turkeys get from farm to table each year (at least not since Sarah Palin’s photo op last Thanksgiving of a turkey being slaughtered on camera).

A federal appeals court, however, has been contemplating the issue, and last week issued a ruling that affects not only hundreds of millions of turkeys but also nine billion chickens slaughtered for food each year. These birds are typically shackled and hung upside down, paralyzed by electrified water, and dragged over mechanical throat-cutting blades—all while conscious. Many birds each year miss the blades and drown in tanks of scalding water.

It’s all because the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently exempts birds from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the milestone federal law requiring that farm animals be rendered insensible to pain before they’re shackled and cut. Although Congress mandated humane slaughter for all “livestock” in 1958, the USDA’s interpretation of this half-century old law provides no protection for 99 percent of all food animals.

The Humane Society of the United States had joined forces with two poultry slaughterhouse worker advocacy groups and several consumers to challenge USDA’s exclusion of poultry from the protections afforded by the humane slaughter law. Slaughtering conscious birds is not only inhumane, but also presents serious risks for food safety and slaughterhouse workers who handle the flailing animals.

A federal district court ruled last year that USDA properly excluded chickens, ducks, and other farm-raised birds from the law. The court found the term “livestock” itself to be broad enough to encompass poultry, but nevertheless held that a muddled legislative record from 1958 showed Congress’ intent to exclude poultry. This despite one member of the House reading into the official congressional record a 1958 dictionary definition making clear poultry are indeed livestock.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision last week, but without reaching the merits of the case. The court noted that, when the law was enacted, USDA itself considered “chicken eggs, commercial broilers, chickens, and turkeys” as “livestock and livestock products.” The court also observed that “congressional debate revealed views favoring both interpretations advanced here—one that would include chickens, turkeys and other domestic fowl within its expanse and one that would preclude such inclusiveness.”

However, the court declined to express any opinion on this critical legal question, finding instead that the courts have no jurisdiction to decide on this issue at all. According to the court, because even a favorable ruling would require additional, voluntary action by USDA to enforce the act, the plaintiffs cannot sue to plug this gaping loophole in the nation’s humane slaughter laws.

The court questioned “why Congress had not done something ‘clear and definitive’” to address this loophole, and also observed that Congress has already given the Secretary of Agriculture a “grant of authority…to include whatever additional ‘species of livestock’ he or she ‘consider[s] appropriate’ within the scope of the humane slaughter requirements.”

In fact, Congress has not only given USDA the authority to act, but has also asked the agency to examine this very issue: In the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2008, Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) directed the USDA to study “controlled atmosphere stunning,” a method that, when done using a proper mix of gases, provides a more humane death by rendering birds unconscious before they’re shackled, let alone cut. It can also yield higher productivity for slaughter plants, such as fewer broken bones in the meat as animals aren’t struggling, and fewer workplace injuries for the staff.

By overturning the lower court decision endorsing USDA’s exclusion of poultry, the court has cleared the way for USDA and Congress to finally do “something clear and definitive” to ensure that billions of chickens and turkeys have the basic protection of being rendered insensible to pain prior to shackling and slaughter. It’s now time for Congress and USDA to act—and to finally give birds a more merciful end in the years and Thanksgivings ahead.


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