Now that the COVID-19 outbreak has shut down, at least temporarily, an estimated 20 major slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America, millions of farm animals are left in limbo with nowhere to go.
In Iowa, the nation’s biggest pork-producing state, farmers are reportedly giving pregnant sows abortions by injection and composting dead baby pigs to be used for fertilizer. Amid supply chain bottlenecks, local political leaders warn that producers might be forced to “euthanize” around 70,000 pigs a day.
In Minnesota, JBS, the world’s largest slaughter operation, reopened its Worthington plant last month for the sole purpose of killing and dumping excess pigs. The meat processing plant partially reopened for business last week. Roughly one-quarter of the facility’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
And in Delaware and Maryland, Allen Harim Foods depopulated 2 million chickens last month, citing a 50 percent decline in its workforce.
Using the terms “slaughter” or “euthanasia” to describe the rapid destruction of farm animals is a misnomer. Slaughter is killing for human consumption; to ensure meat quality, the animal typically dies from blood loss. Under the federal humane slaughter law, animals (except birds) are first stunned, which means they are rendered insensible to pain.
Euthanasia literally means “a good death.” It involves ending an animal’s life in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
The AVMA defines the term “depopulation” as “the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable.”
Among the depopulation methods deemed acceptable is using a layer of water-based foam to drown and suffocate birds. During ventilation shutdown, operators flip a switch to turn off the airflow in a barn and ratchet up the heat to as high as 120 degrees, leaving trapped birds and pigs to die from a combination of heat stress and suffocation. The process can take hours and likely results in severe suffering. In fact, other than burning animals to death or burying them alive, it is difficult to imagine a more horrific end.
The last time such gruesome depopulation methods were widely used was in 2015 in response to highly pathogenic bird flu—the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history—which killed nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys. In that case, birds were sick and suffering, and the justification given for the extreme step of depopulation was that it would slow the spread of the disease in the shortest time possible.
During the current pandemic, however, animals are not suffering from disease and they are not at risk of transmitting disease to other animals or to humans. Instead, they are being killed, and their bodies disposed of because meat companies failed to properly protect their workers from exposure to COVID-19.
The meat industry is using depopulation as a quick fix for its lack of emergency preparedness. The conventional animal agriculture industry operates a highly consolidated system that has a hard time adjusting in response to a crisis. It routinely runs slaughter lines at dizzying speeds, provides the lowest level of care to animals crammed in stressful, unsanitary environments, and extends minimal health and safety protections to its workers (to date, thousands have become ill or been exposed to the coronavirus and some have died). This intensive, high-production system leaves no room for error, yet giant corporations give little consideration to how animals will fare in emergency situations—from disease outbreaks to natural disasters to devastating barn fires.
That hasn’t stopped industrial agriculture from begging for federal assistance—warning of meat shortages and skyrocketing prices. Farmers are also asking the federal government to bankroll depopulation efforts, along with compensating them for their losses.
Already, the USDA has pledged that government officials and veterinarians will step in, if necessary, to “advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.” Because there are no federal or state regulations governing farm animal euthanasia or depopulation, more than 20 members of Congress sent a letter last week to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging his department to curb extreme measures, including ventilation shutdown and water-based foam methods.
We simply cannot trust powerful industry players and federal regulators to safeguard animal welfare. According to a recent report by the Animal Welfare Institute, JBS’ Worthington plant, a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were the top three worst large livestock slaughter plants in the country for animal welfare violations from 2016 to 2018. These three facilities account for 12 percent of all U.S. hog production. Violations included multiple incidents of failing to stun animals before shackling and hanging them to be dismembered, likely causing the animals excruciating pain.
Depopulation during the current pandemic is being pursued solely as a consequence of the meat industry’s failure to protect its workers, not because the animals present any real risk to human or animal health. These blatantly inhumane killing methods are completely unjustifiable.
Because these animals cannot be brought to market, millions of animal lives will be wasted. At the very least, we should spare them a cruel death.
Dena is the farmed animal program director for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.