USDA inspectors assigned to the plants say much of the cruel treatment they witness is tied to the rapid pace at which employees work, flipping live birds upside down and shackling their legs. If the birds are not properly secured, they might elude the automated blade and remain alive when they enter the scalder.
Over the past five years, an annual average of 825,000 chickens and 18,000 turkeys died this way, USDA public reports show, representing less than 1 percent of the total processed. Government inspectors assigned to the plants document these kills, which are easily spotted because the birds’ skin becomes discolored.
“One of the greatest risks for inhumane treatment is line speed. You can’t always stop the abuse at these speeds,” said Mohan Raj, a British-based poultry-slaughter expert who helps advise the European Food Safety Authority. “It’s so fast, you blink and the bird has moved away from you.”
The proposal being finalized by the USDA would revamp inspections in poultry plants and increase the maximum line speed — to 175 birds per minute from 140 in chicken plants and to 55 per minute from 45 in turkey plants.
Department officials, who plan to submit a final version of the regulations to the White House for approval, say they do not think the humane handling of poultry will be compromised as the new rules are rolled out across the country.
USDA officials stress that the new system could reduce food-borne pathogens, including salmonella, by using government inspectors more effectively. Officials say salmonella rates have fallen at plants in a pilot program using the new approach. But in a report last month, the Government Accountability Office questioned the validity of the USDA’s findings, saying the department’s analysis was based on incomplete and antiquated data.
The new rules would apply to what is called the “evisceration” segment of poultry processing, in which dead birds are cleaned, bruised meat is chopped off and food safety checks are conducted. It does not apply directly to the slaughtering process. But if plants wish to boost production by speeding up the processing of birds, more would have to be slaughtered.
More than two dozen chicken and turkey plants have adopted the new inspection procedures, including the faster line speeds, under the 15-year-old pilot program run by the USDA called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). The new approach also involves replacing about 40 percent of government inspectors with company employees.