Even as slaughterhouses emerge as pandemic hotspots, USDA grants record number of waivers to dial up
So far in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers to 15 chicken slaughterhouses, allowing them to speed up the rate of killing from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute—about three birds per second. Photo by Blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo
The federal government has handed out a record number of waivers this month for chicken slaughterhouses to dial up the already dangerous speeds at which they kill birds. The development not only raises animal welfare concerns, but it comes at a time when slaughterhouses have emerged as major clusters for the spread of the coronavirus because of their cramped, unsanitary working conditions—conditions that line speed increases will only worsen.
So far in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers to 15 chicken slaughterhouses, allowing them to speed up the rate of killing from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute—about three birds per second. This is a significant increase in the waivers issued each month since the new program went into effect in 2018, and it adversely affects millions more animals. In the period between January and March this year, the agency only issued a single waiver.
The USDA’s decision came just weeks after a coalition of groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, sued the agency in February for allowing the increase in line speeds. We are concerned because slaughtering animals at this rate increases suffering for birds in their final moments, creates even more dangerous conditions for workers and compromises the health and safety of consumers.
At such high speeds, workers struggling to keep up with the rapidly moving slaughter lines grab the chickens and slam them into shackles, injuring the animals’ fragile legs. Some birds miss the throat-cutting blade and enter the scalder—a tank of extremely hot water—alive and fully conscious, resulting in a terrible death.
In recent weeks, slaughterhouses have also been in the news for their role in exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic. A South Dakota pig slaughterhouse has been linked to nearly 900 cases of the disease, making it the single largest cluster in the entire country. At least 2,700 cases have been tied to 60 meatpacking plants in 23 states, and at least 17 workers in these plants have died. Some slaughterhouses, such as the one in South Dakota and Tyson’s largest U.S. pig slaughterhouse, have finally shuttered their doors, but many remain open even after workers have tested positive for the virus.
The United Food and Commercial Worker International Union has warned that allowing slaughterhouses to speed up guarantees that workers will be more crowded along the meatpacking line, and therefore at greater risk of either catching or spreading the virus.
These slaughterhouses are also dangerous for the communities where they are located. A USA Today analysis found that counties with some of America’s largest beef, pork and poultry processing plants have coronavirus infection rates higher than those in 75% of other U.S. counties.
With all this evidence, it is mindboggling that the USDA is giving out more waivers, choosing to help fatten the bottom lines of corporate interests over animal welfare, food safety and the safety of the agency’s own inspectors and slaughterhouse employees.
Last week, our legal team warned the USDA that we would amend our lawsuit and take steps to seek a quick ruling following the increased waivers, and the agency now appears to have relented slightly. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the USDA told a Bloomberg reporter that it has “stopped accepting additional requests” from chicken slaughterhouses to operate at higher speeds.
But this is not good enough—we are asking that the agency revoke all of the waivers it has already issued. Our federal government should never prioritize industry profits over animal welfare, worker safety and public health, and especially not in the midst of a global pandemic.
Published at Thu, 23 Apr 2020 21:06:27 +0000
Lions take a leisurely nap on a tourist- and traffic-free road in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Richard Sowry/Kruger National Park
You’ve seen those cute videos and heartwarming news stories: kangaroos hopping through the streets of Adelaide, Australia; penguins exploring Cape Town, South Africa; deer grazing on the lawn of an apartment complex in London; bears stretching their legs in Yosemite National Park; and coyotes wandering through neighborhoods in San Francisco. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping people indoors around the world, animals are thriving, by all reports, bringing much-needed smiles to our faces and reminding us this Earth Day that we have a responsibility to share our planet with our fellow creatures.
Restrictions on travel and industry to stop the spread of the coronavirus have led to unprecedented drops in deadly air pollution in major cities around the world. The Associated Press reports that the air from Boston to Washington is its cleanest since a NASA satellite started measuring nitrogen dioxide in 2005, and in Los Angeles, air pollution is down 29 percent compared to the previous five years. In northern India, people are seeing the Himalayas clearly for the first time in 30 years.
The fact that fewer people are out and about also means fewer wild animals on land and in the waterways are being killed by cars and boat strikes (the number of animals killed in such incidents range in the hundreds of millions globally each year).
The BBC reports that in Thailand, a record number of baby leatherback sea turtles have hatched in the country’s southern Phang Nga province, famous for its beaches. Biologists say there are more turtle nests this year than there have been in the past 20 years, and attribute it to the fact that the coronavirus has kept away tourists, leaving the beaches and the turtles in peace. In Florida, scientists expect to see similar effects on leatherback turtles now nesting on the state’s east coast.
Incidents of boats hitting manatees are down— according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as of April 10, there have been 24 manatee deaths by boat so far this year, down from 41 for the same period last year.
The U.S. National Park Service reports that in the Grand Canyon National Park, which has been closed since the beginning of April, there have been fewer vehicle-caused mortalities involving elk, mule deer and other species.
In their way, these examples and statistics are also a sobering reminder of just how deeply human development and lifestyles can shape the fate of wildlife around the world. From mountain lions in California to elephants in Africa to wolves in Oregon and Washington state, animals have less space to call home than ever before This is something we shouldn’t forget when the coronavirus subsides and we are able to return to our past routines.
It is also time to take stock of practices that have led to the decline in many wildlife species—practices that the Humane Society and its affiliates have long sought to change, including encroachment on wildlife habitat, poaching, trophy hunting, wildlife markets and the wildlife trade.
The lockdowns will end some day and we will face a new kind of world, one in which we have recognized the dangerous effects of certain human practices through which we endanger not just wildlife but ourselves. We should begin thinking about what kind of world that is going to be. And in the meantime, we can all take some steps to ensure the health of our planet and its diverse wildlife, by refusing to buy wild, refusing to participate in wildlife tourism that exploits captive animals, and by lobbying local and state policymakers for wildlife-friendly laws and regulations.
On this Earth Day, you can also consider the role you play in your own backyard and beyond, from planting native plants that provide habitat and food wild animals need to reducing mowed spaces and the use of pesticides and herbicides. Doing so can turn any outdoor area (big or small) into a safe place for wildlife, and, in the process, help the planet thrive.
Published at Wed, 22 Apr 2020 21:57:38 +0000