Lawsuit Claims Cruel Poultry Slaughter Jeopardizes Workers' Safety

Two organizations dedicated to improving agricultural worker safety and rights joined the Humane Society of the United States' lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the two groups claiming current poultry slaughter practices are not only inhumane, but also cause unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, raising the risk of worker injury in slaughterhouses.

The Equal Justice Center and Western North Carolina Workers' Center have joined forces with the animal protection organization to challenge the USDA's exclusion of chickens, turkeys and other birds killed for human consumption from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter ACT OF 1958.

"Slaughterhouse workers must struggle to hang terrified birds upside down at incredible speeds. As a result, they suffer serious injuries such as lacerations, broken bones, repetitive motion injuries and respiratory problems from inhaling dust, dirt and feces," said Anita Grabowski, coordinator of Equal Justice Center's Poultry Worker Project. "These incredibly abusive and undignified workplace practices could be eliminated if more humane slaughter methods were adopted."

Last fall, the USDA issued a public notice informing poultry slaughter facilities that they did not have to comply with the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires that animals be "rendered insensible to pain" before being processed or slaughtered.

A call to the USDA office for comment was not immediately returned.

According to the Francisco Risso, director of the Western North Carolina Worker's Center, processors slaughter more than 9 billion birds each year, exposing more than 200,000 employees nationwide to filthy, bloody and dark working conditions. If the USDA required facilities to humanely slaughter birds, the animals would be stunned and immobilized before the workers processed them under regular lighting conditions, decreasing contamination, injuries and stress, he said.

"Current slaughter methods are inherently dangerous and take a devastating emotional toll on the workers who must witness and participate in these cruelties," Risso said. "The USDA's refusal to apply the federal humane slaughter law to poultry significantly and negatively impacts the day-to-day lives of thousands of workers who are doing some of the most difficult and thankless work in our society."

The only bright light in this situation, according to Risso, is that the lawsuit has brought common ground to the different constituencies involved in the agricultural sector as a whole.

"Most of the workers are poor immigrant workers or African-American, while those that are involved in the animal husbandry side are white middle-class," he said. "It's great that we have built alliances and are starting to change the ways the poultry industry is handled."

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