United Poultry Concerns September 9, 2004

Caught on Tape: Video Fuels Poultry Crusade
By Mark Hawthorne

A More Humane White House?

Most in the animal welfare community with an opinion on the upcoming presidential election believe that poultry stands a better chance of being included in the HMSA under a Kerry administration.

" John Kerry has a strong history of supporting humane legislation, while President Bush does not," says Farm Sanctuary's Gene Bauston. "Therefore, a Kerry presidency appears more likely to be more conducive to the passage of humane laws for chickens or any animals."

Wayne Pacelle of HSUS agrees. "I think Kerry would be more likely to support an amendment to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to include poultry," he says.
Although he too favors Kerry, Rich Mc Lellan, director of the Animal Legislative Action Network, which collects information on political candidates, believes it's actually the local elections, not who ends up sitting in the Oval Office, that will ultimately have the most influence on animal welfare, and he encourages voters to carefully consider the candidates in their city, county and state races. "But, on the basis of what records we have on the issues that impact animals, ALAN believes that a vote for Kerry would more favorably impact the lives of animals in this country over the next four years than Bush," he says. "That is not to say that we will see chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese included in the HMSA during that time. There is much work to do on that concept, like better political organizing on the part of animal advocates, in which they have yet to show much consistency."

" Getting Congress to amend the HMSA to include birds should have a better chance under Kerry than under Bush," says Karen Davis, "simply because everything good is at risk under Bush, and Kerry should be a little bit better than that."

Viva!USA's Lauren Ornelas remains unconvinced a new president will make a difference. "As neither side has chosen to make the rights of farmed animals a campaign issue," she says, "it is difficult to say whether a change in administration would result in a change for the animals."

Ingrid Newkirk has another candidate in mind. "The only politician who is running and who says the right things about agricultural pollution, cruelty, veganism, and more is Chris P. Carrot, PETA's orange person candidate," she says. See him online at www.carrot2004.com .

Back in the day, the printed word was the medium of choice for moving the masses. In Upton Sinclair's powerful 1906 novel The Jungle , a slaughterhouse worker falls into a large vat of meat being rendered into lard at a Chicago packing plant. His bones are retrieved, but the rest of his body eventually becomes part of Durham's Pure Leaf Lard. Scenes like this one, supposedly based on fact, shocked readers from complacency, and they demanded slaughterhouse reforms. Convening in June 1906, the House Agriculture Committee was soon embroiled in a debate over a bill that would become the Meat Inspection Act. Not surprisingly, the bill faced stiff resistance in Congress, thanks in part to well-funded lobbyists representing the "beef trust" and other food producers. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had read Sinclair's book, stepped in to ensure the bill became law.

Nearly a century later, it is the photographic image that captures the public's imagination-and indignation. Whether it's a digital photo depicting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq or a videotape of slaughterhouse workers kicking and stomping on chickens, a picture speaks volumes. While the fallout continues from the human rights violations in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the video footage documenting workers at the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, is galvanizing the call that chickens be included in the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The video, surreptitiously recorded by a PETA activist, shows employees jumping up and down on live chickens, dropkicking them like footballs, and slamming them into walls, apparently for fun. Dr. Ian Duncan, an animal and poultry science professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, writes, "This tape depicts scenes of the worst cruelty I have ever witnessed against chickens.and it is extremely hard to accept that this is occurring in the United States of America." Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the industry's leading farmed animal welfare expert, concurs: "The behavior of the plant employees was atrocious," she writes, asserting that although she has toured poultry facilities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, and the U.K., the video showed "the WORST employee behavior I have ever seen in a poultry plant."

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act
Congress approved the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) in 1958. While the meat industry voiced its objections, the public supported the reform, which requires that animals raised for food must be "rendered insensible to pain" before being killed. After all, supporters of the act reasoned, if animals are to be slaughtered, they should not be tormented during their final moments.

But although the eight bills presented at the 1957 hearings before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock and Feed Grains included livestock and poultry, the meat industry managed to get poultry exempted from the HMSA, meaning there is no federal protection for the nine billion chickens and turkeys killed every year in the U.S.-95 percent of all animals killed for food in this country. While state laws exist, these are rarely enforced.

Now, with the grainy but gruesome images of slaughterhouse workers cruelly mistreating chickens fresh in everyone's minds, a number of animal advocacy groups are asking authorities in West Virginia to prosecute under the state's anti-cruelty statute and are calling for the federal government to include poultry in the HMSA. "We're asking our members to contact their Congressional representatives urging sponsorship of a bill to amend the Humane Slaughter Act to include poultry," says Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns. "Next, we are sending a letter attached to our Poultry Slaughter Report to each member of the House and Senate. I have written an op-ed piece, and I am again writing to Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia urging him to introduce a bill, as he has been so outspoken on enforcing the existing law and appropriating funds to implement the law."

One of the first op-ed pieces on the Pilgrim's Pride abuse case came from Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "The adoption of controlled atmosphere (gas) stun-killing systems would eliminate the potential for many of the cruelties-routine and sadistic-that characterize our modern slaughtering systems," he wrote in the July 28 issue of the Chicago Tribune. "The industry's retort that it can regulate itself has proved a hollow assurance. If the cattle and pig industries must observe federal laws to assure humane slaughter, why shouldn't the poultry industry be held to the same decent and merciful standards?" The HSUS is currently making plans on how best to approach the government and get chickens and turkeys protected under federal law. "We are talking to legislators, reaching out to industry, and developing all of the arguments that we'll need," Pacelle says. The group would like Congress to hold hearings on charges that poultry plant workers tortured birds before killing them, calling PETA's videotape of mistreatment at the Pilgrim's Pride plant "undeniable and unmistakable."

Whatever laws are enacted, it's a safe bet that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will be involved as well. PETA asked a West Virginia prosecutor to prosecute plant employees and managers under state laws that make torture or malicious killing of animals a felony; on July 20, the day PETA released its video, Lucas See, the prosecuting attorney for Hardy County, ordered an investigation of the Pilgrim's Pride plant. PETA is also considering further options. "At this point all I can really say is that we're working with sympathetic Congresspeople to see what's tenable," says Dan Shannon, Senior Campaign Coordinator for PETA. "We really don't have firm plans in place yet. But I think the public outcry over this investigation, as documented by the massive news coverage it received, is an indication that this matter should be taken seriously by Congress."

Although including poultry in the HMSA is generally seen as a step in the right direction, Paul Shapiro of Compassion Over Killing cautions that such legislation is worthless without enforcement. "The bigger question about the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is this: Will adding birds to the HMSA really make a big difference for them? I'm in favor of adding them so that some legal framework exists to be improved upon, but the HMSA does little to protect the animals who are currently covered by it. Violations occur all the time, and few do anything about it. Without enforcement, the HMSA means very little."

Pilgrim's Shame
For its part, Pilgrim's Pride was quick to fire 11 employees and apologize for their behavior. Pilgrim's Pride president O. B. Goolsby tried to absolve KFC, its largest customer, of any blame in this cruelty case. But PETA says KFC should share the responsibility for these abuses. According to a statement from PETA, "KFC is perfectly aware that chickens are being abused in the slaughterhouses which supply its chickens. Just last year, a man who once worked for another slaughterhouse that supplies KFC also came forth with stories of malicious torture. His reports were ignored."

Goolsby also said PETA's undercover investigator, who took a job at the plant last year so he could document abuse on videotape and whose identity has been kept secret, should have reported findings earlier "so we could have taken immediate action." A PETA statement calls this suggestion "highly disingenuous," since the PETA worker did in fact anonymously report the mistreatment with no results, and the plant's own management witnessed the abuse and took no action. "More than two years ago," the statement reads, "KFC's parent company, Yum! Brands, Inc., assured PETA that it intended to 'raise the bar' on animal welfare, yet it has done nothing to address some of the most egregious cruelty in the chicken industry. KFC falsely claims that it is 'committed to the well-being of chickens' and that its 'suppliers are acting responsibly.' If the company wanted to stop these abuses, it would put cameras in its slaughterhouses, have animal welfare experts conduct audits, and phase in controlled atmosphere killing of chickens, which is supported by its own advisory panelists."

Prosecutor See, meanwhile, stunned many when he announced in August that he saw no evidence of torture in the tapes and planned to file only misdemeanor abuse charges against the Pilgrim's Pride workers. PETA immediately protested, as did HSUS. "We were very disappointed to learn that he apparently did not find clear evidence of torture," says Ann Chynoweth, HSUS's Counsel to Investigative Services. Chynoweth had offered assistance to the prosecutor when the tapes first surfaced, but received no response. "I have found that it's difficult to get a prosecutor's attention with high-profile cases, but we will continue to follow up on this case and to press for a legitimate investigation."

See's office reports that the allegations against Pilgrim's Pride are "under investigation."

Animal advocates have been working for years to get chickens and turkeys covered by the HMSA, and at least one now sees a ray of hope. UPC's Karen Davis says, "I am optimistic that the Pilgrim's Pride scandal will expedite the inclusion of chickens, turkeys, and ducks under the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act-an inclusion that is nearly 50 years overdue. As a result of the PETA investigation, I think it will be easier to convince lawmakers that chickens and other birds slaughtered for human consumption are in dire need of the same coverage that has been accorded for decades to cattle, sheep, and pigs. UPC is going to do everything possible to bring this about."

Mark Hawthorne is a California-based writer and animal advocate.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

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