“Killing Them Softly” is a powerful article
about factory farmed animals and the increasing attention these
animals are finally starting to receive on various fronts (please
see the article below). One of the most momentous quotes is
by former Tyson chicken slaughterhouse employee Virgil Butler, who
worked the nightshift at the Grannis, Arkansas plant for five years.
Concerning chickens paralyzed by the electrified water trough through
which their faces are dragged just before having their necks cut,
he says: “I’ve stood there on the kill floor
and seen how they look at you. They try everything in their power
to get away. They may not be able to read and write, but they know
what’s going on.”
What Can I Do?
- The Los Angeles Times takes letters at:
Always include your full name, address and telephone number when
emailing a letter to the editor.
- The Polk County, Arkansas Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney’s
Office are investigating cruelty charges based on Virgil Butler’s
affidavit (1/30/03) in which he describes Tyson slaughterhouse
workers in Grannis, AR tearing chickens’ bodies apart, running
over chickens with forklifts, and blowing chickens apart with
dry ice bombs for fun, and much more horrific cruelty to these
birds on a nightly basis.
(To read Virgil Butler’s affidavit, go to
Please urge the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney to file
cruelty-to-animals charges against all those responsible, as
described in Mr. Butler’s affidavit:
The Honorable Tim Williamson
Polk County Prosecutor’s Office
PO Box 109
600 Port Arthur Street
Mena, AR 71953
Sheriff Michael Oglesby
Polk County Sheriff’s Office
507 Church Street
Mena, AR 71953
Please write now. According to Mr. Butler, “I have talked
with some of my former co-workers who say that conditions have not
gotten better since the investigation started. It is a nightmare
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Voluntary reforms in the livestock industry have changed the way
animals are slaughtered. Critics say needless suffering still exists.
The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Column One, Stephanie Simon,
April 29, 2003
Little Rock, Ark. -- Chained upside down by their hooves, blood
spurting from the jugular, the hogs were supposed to be dead, or
at least unconscious, as the conveyor belt rolled them along to
be gutted. Now and then, though, one would rear back and strain
to right itself. No one made much fuss. The animals would be sliced
for sausage within minutes. If a few left the kill floor still aware,
still kicking -- well, that was how slaughterhouses operated.
Then Jim Stonehocker heard a speech that changed the way his hogs
die. A competitor in the meat business was talking about stewardship
-- about how to make good sausage, and good profits, while treating
animals with dignity, so they die without terror and as much as
possible, without pain. "I'm always going to have meat at the
center of my plate. I'm always going to wear a leather belt. But
we can treat these animals with more respect," said Stonehocker,
who runs the sausage company Odom's Tennessee Pride. "In my
mind, 'humane slaughter' was an oxymoron. I've had my awakening."
So have many of his colleagues across the food industry. A revolution
in livestock handling in recent years has improved the lives and
the deaths of millions of animals -- most dramatically on the kill
floors that handle cows and pigs, but also in farmyards, hen houses
and even transport trucks. The reforms are voluntary. Yet they have
gained the momentum to become standard in much of the food industry.
Many restaurants will not buy burger patties from a slaughterhouse
that sends its cows to the kill floor bellowing in fear. Many supermarkets
will not buy eggs from a farmer who cuts off hens' beaks to stop
them from pecking one another. "Customers used to tell us what
they wanted to eat. Now they tell us how they want it produced,"
said Ken Klippen, a vice president of United Egg Producers, a trade
group based in Alpharetta, Ga.
Animal-welfare activists caution that many cows, pigs and especially
chickens still suffer mightily, trapped in a system that treats
animals as commodities to be pushed through an assembly line from
birth to death and onto the dinner plate as cheaply as possible.
They decry such practices as docking pigs' tails, burning the horns
off male cattle and cramming hens into bare wire cages as barbaric
and unnecessary. Still, they sense the tide is turning. For the
first time since industrialized farming took hold, they say, animals
are being viewed as living creatures with wants and needs and fears.
One sign of how attitudes have shifted: Hundreds of farmers, truck
drivers and slaughterhouse managers recently attended workshops
on such topics as "Inside the Mind of a Steer," "Humane
Turkey Production" and "Creating an Animal Welfare Mind-Set
in Your Company," in a seminar sponsored by the American Meat
Another indication: The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to
hire 50 new inspectors this year to monitor animal welfare in slaughterhouses.
Politicians too are taking up the issue. In California, the Assembly
Agricultural Committee will vote this week on a bill that would
outlaw the common practice of confining pregnant sows and veal calves
in crates so cramped that they cannot turn around. A similar bill
is pending in New Jersey. Last fall, voters in Florida approved
a ballot measure outlawing sow gestation crates, which farmers use
to shield pigs from the stress of competing with other animals for
food and space. "There's been a real change in consciousness,"
said Bruce Friedrich, a leading organizer with People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals. "A phenomenal change," agreed Joy
Mench, director of the Center for Animal Welfare at UC Davis.
In part, the reforms are driven by self-interest. When an animal
is bruised, its flesh turns mushy and must be discarded. Even stress,
especially right before slaughter, can affect the quality of meat.
As Jim Reeves, a cattle breeder in Texas, put it: "A happy
animal is going to make a better eating experience for the public."
So from farm to kill floor, livestock handlers are increasingly
focused on keeping their charges happy. Premium Standard Farms,
a major pork producer based in Kansas City, Mo., has even begun
training its workers to greet each pig with a gentle pat rather
than shoving them out of the way in the rush to complete daily chores.
"The conditions still may not be ideal. But [the new attitude
toward livestock] will improve the lives of many, many animals,"
said Adele Douglass, a farm expert at the American Humane Assn.
The changing approach to animal welfare has its roots in a 1996
federal study. The USDA hired Temple Grandin, an animal scientist
at Colorado State University, to inspect two dozen meat-processing
plants across the nation. She announced her visits in advance. Still,
she found suffering that appalled her. By federal law, animals are
supposed to be knocked unconscious so they feel no pain before slaughter.
With cows and pigs, that's often accomplished by shooting a retractable
bolt into their brains. At two-thirds of the beef plants she inspected,
Grandin noted that the bolt guns were not working or not being used
properly. Many cows suffered repeated shots to the brain -- or remained
conscious as they moved down the line to be dismembered. Grandin
found similar failings in one-third of the pork plants. Even before
they got to the kill floor, animals were in pain, stumbling on slippery
floors and piling on one another in fear. One plant had to prod
80% of its hogs with a mild shock to get them walking.
Grandin realized that it was not enough to tell workers to treat
animals humanely. They would need quantifiable performance standards:
Don't prod more than 25% of pigs. Don't let more than 1% of cattle
slip. She set those benchmarks, based on the highest standards a
handler could be expected to meet day in and day out. Then she trained
workers to measure up. Grandin, who is autistic, says she perceives
the world as a series of images, much as a farm animal would. Crawling
through chutes on her knees, she has an uncanny ability to pick
out the mundane sights and sounds that can stress an animal into
hysteria -- the glint of a metal chain, the hiss of an air vent,
the motion of a worker's hard hat bobbing in and out of view.
To their amazement, producers found that removing those distractions
calmed the livestock. The animals no longer balked, so their handlers
didn't need to swat them on the rump or zap them with an electric
prod to get them moving. Grandin also urged the installation of
non-slip flooring so livestock wouldn't trip. After meat producers
carried out her suggestions, Grandin used audits to show them how
much they improved. Her objective, numbers-based analysis caught
fire in an industry long wary of even discussing animal welfare.
"We were always concerned that there could be a lot of subjectivity
about what is humane," said Janet Riley, senior vice president
of the American Meat Institute. "But when she said, 'Make sure
that less than X percent of animals slip and fall,' that was real
clear. It was a turning point." McDonald's hired Grandin in
1997 to work with its suppliers. Two years later, the fast-food
giant began surprise inspections of its slaughterhouse suppliers
-- and cut ties with those that flunked.
About that time, PETA launched an intense campaign against McDonald's.
Protesters outside Golden Arches around the world handed out "Unhappy
Meals" with figurines of bloody, butchered animals. McDonald's
insists that PETA's antics were "not a factor." But in
the fall of 2000, the chain announced standards for humane treatment
of every animal that produced its nuggets, burgers, eggs and bacon.
PETA followed up with protests against Burger King, Wendy's and
Safeway markets. One after another, the corporations set tough standards
for animal welfare -- and demanded their suppliers comply.
Grandin was able to measure the results through nationwide audits
she conducts for her private consulting business. In 1996, just
36% of the beef plants she inspected effectively knocked their cattle
insensible before slaughter. Last year, 94% got it right. And the
changes go beyond the kill floor. At the sausage plant here, for
instance, Paul Whitfield now waves a blue flag and clucks "yee-ahhh,
yee, yee!" to get the pigs walking. He no longer uses an electric
prod. "We sure don't have to be as aggressive as before,"
he said. "It's a lot less stressful, on us and on them."
Truck drivers too are adopting gentler techniques; across the nation,
thousands have taken workshops to certify as humane handlers. They
learn how far a pig's peripheral vision extends, so they know where
to stand when they're trying to get an animal moving. They are taught
to avoid slamming the brakes, because the jolt can knock cattle
down. Some livestock haulers have even started to provide climate
control, misting animals with a cooling spray in hot weather.
Animal-rights activists applaud such changes. PETA's Friedrich goes
as far as to pronounce, with pride, that "we've achieved societal
sea change" in the treatment of livestock. Then he rushes to
add: "The level of abuse is still such that it would horrify
any compassionate person." The egg industry, for instance,
lets producers put an "animal care certified" logo on
packages if they give their hens more cage space, moving from the
standard 48 square inches per bird to 67. Industry backers say that's
all the space a hen needs. But activists point out that 67 square
inches is smaller than a piece of paper. "Those hens can never
flap their wings, never touch earth, never see sunlight," said
Paul Shapiro, who runs an animal-rights group called Compassion
Over Killing. "For the industry to treat this as the end of
the debate is irresponsible."
PETA is especially concerned about poultry packing plants, which
have received less scrutiny than beef and pork processors though
more than 90% of animals killed for food in this country are chickens.
The standard method for slaughtering chickens -- at a rate of 11,000
birds an hour -- involves shackling them upside down from a conveyor
belt that runs along the ceiling. Their heads are dunked in a shallow
"stun bath" to anesthetize them. A revolving blade then
slices their necks. Chicken processors defend their methods as humane,
arguing that it's a lot less traumatic than the old-fashioned farm-boy
method of wringing the bird's neck. But activists contend that many
chickens are not properly stunned or sliced, and end up boiling
to death in the scalding tank meant to loosen their feathers. "I've
stood there on the kill floor and seen how they look at you. They
try everything in their power to get away. They may not be able
to read and write, but they know what's going on," said Virgil
Butler, a former employee of a chicken plant in Arkansas who is
working with PETA on a "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" campaign,
featuring a demonic Colonel Sanders dripping blood. KFC rejects
all allegations of cruelty. The fast-food chain says it sends inspectors
on unannounced tours of its suppliers to be sure the birds are "slaughtered
quickly and without pain." KFC does not send inspectors to
In general, farms, ranches and feedlots have been slower than slaughterhouses
to adopt humane-handling practices. The delay can be attributed
in part to scale: It's much easier to implement reform in 800 meat-packing
plants than on 900,000 cattle ranches. "We have ranches in
every state, in every climate, with [dozens] of different breeds.
It's a real challenge to put together guidelines that are appropriate
for all that diversity," said Gary Weber, executive director
of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. There have been a few notable
reforms. McDonald's, Burger King and other chains have forced their
egg suppliers to end the practice of starving the hens for several
days each year to boost egg production. The restaurants are trying
to prod pork producers to stop confining pregnant sows in cramped
"gestation crates" to eliminate the stress of competing
for food. They're pushing for an end to the tradition of branding
cattle with hot irons.
But the powerful groups that represent farmers and ranchers have
deflected some of the pressure by insisting that any reform be based
on science, not sentiment. They argue there's no scientific proof
that chickens need sunlight or that pregnant sows need space to
move. They complain that activists are inappropriately treating
livestock like pets when they call for poultry to be given toys
to ease the boredom of confinement, or calves to be given painkillers
before castration. And they point out that many reforms have unintended
consequences. Activists call for an end to the practice of cutting
off pigs' tails. Farmers respond that the animals will then suffer
painful bites on the tail from other pigs. Activists demand a layer
of dirt in stalls so pigs can root. Farmers respond that dirt can
harbor dangerous parasites, while a concrete floor does not. "We
fully recognize that we have an ethical obligation to the animals
we raise and slaughter, but we have to be wary of rushing to judgment
about what is or not humane," said Charlie Arnot, a vice president
for pork producer Premium Standard Farms. "Striking a balance
between what can be supported by science and what the activists
want will be a real challenge."
Back at the slaughterhouse in Little Rock, plant manager Jim McConnell
says he may have found that balance. Just a few years ago, he said,
he thought nothing of letting hogs sit for hours in the trailers
that transported them, stifling in summer, freezing in winter. Those
that arrived too lame to walk were dragged across the yard. Those
that balked at the steep ramp to the holding pens were shocked with
prods. And yes, some pigs "came back to life" after they
were supposed to be insensible. A few even staggered off the conveyor
belt and charged at the kill floor workers. "We thought abuse
was someone beating an animal," McConnell said. "We didn't
realize. We didn't know."
Odom's Tennessee Pride does things differently now. Hogs are unloaded
as soon as they arrive, into cool pens with long troughs of water.
If they can't walk, they are euthanized on the spot. "There
has been a cultural change here," said production manager Leonardo
Ruiz. On the kill floor, workers no longer shoot the hogs in the
brain with retractable bolts. Instead, they clap a harness over
the animal's head and back and deliver an electric charge. A computerized
display lets them know if they're getting a "good stun"
or if they need to reposition the harness. Some hogs squeal when
the stun is applied. Others jerk. All go rigid in seconds as the
electrical impulse induces cardiac arrest. When the harness is lifted,
the animals slump, flaccid and unblinking, and roll down onto a
conveyor belt. A second worker checks for signs of consciousness
and then quickly slits the throat. Everyone on the kill floor knows
they could be fired if they let a hog suffer. "They're good
animals," worker Lionel Allen said. "We try to treat them
United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes
the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. http://www.UPC-online.org
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150