http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20030706/ap_on_re_us/slaughterhouse_changes_4Activists Seek Changes at Slaughterhouses
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By NADA EL SAWY, Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES - The owners of a Southern California egg farm insist they did nothing wrong when they slaughtered 30,000 chickens, quarantined because of a virus, by throwing them into wood chippers.
State authorities agreed and decided not to file animal cruelty charges.
That decision has incensed animals rights advocates and even some producers who say it's an example of the need for stricter national laws and enforcement to stop what they consider inhumane slaughter of livestock.
"It's not what we do," said Paul Bahan, owner of AAA Egg Farms in Riverside County, who chairs an industry committee targeting treatment of poultry.
Amid a growing national push for better treatment of livestock, the industry is enacting new guidelines for slaughterhouses and farms that will take into account everything from the size of cages to the ways animals are killed. Restaurant and grocery store chains are urging independent audits of the nation's 900 slaughterhouses, and the federal government is moving to hire more inspectors.
Critics say the changes aren't happening fast enough.
During a hearing in May on agriculture appropriations, Sen. Robert Byrd (news, bio, voting record), D-W.Va., called on the Agriculture Department to speed up the hiring of inspectors.
"Despite the laws on the books, chronically weak enforcement and intense pressure to speed up slaughterhouse assembly lines reportedly have resulted in animals being skinned, dismembered, and boiled while they are still alive and conscious," Byrd said.
Members of Congress also have received a video from Sen. Jim Moran, D-Va., actor Alec Baldwin and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The tape, titled "Meet Your Meat," contains graphic images of cruelty at farms.
"Enforcement is the issue," Baldwin, a longtime PETA activist, told The Associated Press. "You live in a society where the USDA is the only barrier between producers and your food."
The American Meat Institute denied that enforcement at slaughterhouses is weak and that animals are routinely abused. Officials also pointed out that the plants can't operate unless an inspector is on the premises.
In the past decade, the $133 billion processing and packing industry has taken a number of steps to improve animals' final moments, such as redesigning pens to accommodate natural movements and minimizing use of electric prods, American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley said. Such treatment is not only ethical, it's good business, she said.
"If an animal is stressed when it goes to slaughter ... it will emit hormones that create quality defects in meat that then has to be trimmed away," she said.
Each year, 8 billion chickens and turkeys, 97 million hogs, 35 million cattle, 3 million sheep and lambs, and 1 million calves are slaughtered in the United States.
Larger animals are usually killed with a gun that shoots a rod directly into the brain. Chickens are typically stunned in an electrified bath before their heads are cut off with a rotating blade. Others are suffocated with carbon dioxide or their necks are broken.
The 45-year-old federal Humane Slaughter Act offers guidelines on slaughter methods but only requires that animals be rendered "insensible to pain" before being killed. It excludes poultry from that requirement. State laws vary.
In the wood chipper case, the USDA did not approve the slaughter method, said Ed Lloyd, a department spokesman. The decision on filing charges was up to the San Diego County district attorney's office, which declined in May after determining there was no criminal intent by the owners of the farm, Arie and Bill Wilgenburg.
"I've done nothing wrong and I stick by that, and I won't say anything else about it," Bill Wilgenburg said.
Officials have said the brothers acted on the advice of a veterinarian. The birds could not be sent to a slaughterhouse because they had been quarantined after an outbreak of a bird virus, Exotic Newcastle Disease.
While the case is unusual, animal welfare advocates say it shows that farmers are seldom held responsible when animals are subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering.
The USDA reported that from January 1998 to January 2003, 21 of the nation's slaughterhouses were cited for violations related to mistreatment.
It says the relatively low number of citations shows enforcement methods are working.
"We make our living by selling cows. We don't make our living by abusing them," said Arthur Green, whose Benton Packing Co. in Springdale, Ark., was cited last year for having too many cows in one pen.
On the Net:
Animal Welfare Audit Program: http://www.awaudit.org/
Humane Farm Animal Care: http://www.certifiedhumane.com/
National Chicken Council: http://www.eatchicken.com
Department of Agriculture: http://www.usda.gov