Poultry slaughter case can proceed

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A federal judge has ruled that animal rights supporters can sue the Department of Agriculture for its policy of excluding chickens, turkeys, and other poultry slaughtered for human consumption from protections mandated by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

United States District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in September threw out the government's motion to dismiss the suit brought by the plaintiffs, including the Humane Society of the United States, several HSUS members, and East Bay Animal Advocates, Oakland, Calif.

The suit alleges that current poultry slaughter methods allow more than 9 billion animals to be slaughtered annually without federal protection from cruelty, increasing consumers' risk of contracting foodborne illness.

"The court's decision marks the first step in ensuring that turkeys, chickens, and other birds are protected from inhumane slaughter, as Congress specifically ordered more than 50 years ago," said Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney with the HSUS Animal Protection Litigation section.

The suit was filed against the USDA in federal district court in San Francisco in November 2005. The USDA was not commenting on the matter.

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that "cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock" be slaughtered in accordance with humane methods. The USDA interprets the act in a way that excludes chickens, turkeys, and other birds from the law. Plaintiffs say that "other livestock" includes animals such as farmed birds, which they claim account for more than nine out of 10 land animals slaughtered annually in the United States.

In her ruling, Patel did not determine whether the USDA's interpretation was legal, only that it could be challenged in court.

Additionally, Patel found that the plaintiffs—specifically, poultry-meat-consuming members of the HSUS and East Bay Animal Advocates—had, by citing studies showing that certain poultry slaughter methods could increase the risk of food poisoning, demonstrated that they were at risk. Patel dismissed the HSUS and East Bay group and rebuffed an effort by lawyers representing reindeer, bison, and other animal species not covered by the humane slaughter act to join the case, saying animals have no standing to sue.

Richard Lobb, communications director for the National Chicken Council, believes the USDA interpretation of the law to be the right one. "Poultry and livestock are two different things, and it has always been understood by everyone, with the exception of the Humane Society of the United States, that poultry are not under the laws governing livestock," said Lobb, who explained that the poultry industry abides by its own slaughter guidelines.

In the United States, poultry are removed from transport crates, hung upside down from shackles by their feet, and then run through an electrically-charged water bath. The current travels through their head and body and out their feet, rendering the birds unconscious. (The water helps to transmit the electrical current through the feathers.)

After emerging from the electrified water bath and while still unconscious, the birds have their throats slit so that they bleed out before regaining consciousness. From there, the birds are defeathered, scalded to remove the pin feathers, eviscerated, and chilled or cut up before chilling.

The suit alleges that any number of problems can occur throughout the process, resulting in needless suffering.