ANALYSIS - Concerns are rising in the US over the new moves to modernise the poultry meat inspection system, writes Editor-in-Chief, Chris Harris.
A recent article in the Washington Post - 'USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse' - brought a swift response from the National Chicken Council to point out that processors do their utmost to ensure good animal welfare.
The main concerns are that the line speeds in the poultry plants will be too fast to ensure efficient, accurate and safe inspection and to ensure that diseased and contaminated birds do not enter the food chain.
These concerns have been raised by the inspectors’ union and welfare groups across the US.
And according to the Washington Post article, there are further concerns that the speed of the line could have welfare issues for the birds, with the possibility that some birds might enter the scald tanks while still alive.
The concerns have been raised by senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has called on the Government Accountability Office to report on the inspection modernisation plans.
And the measures have also been called into question by Humane Farm Animal Care, the organisation that recognises good welfare practices in the Certified Humane scheme.
Following the Washington Post article, National Chicken Council (NCC) vice president of communications Tom Super said: "The figures cited by the Washington Post represent one one hundredth of one per cent (.01 per cent) of the chickens we process for meat per year.
“But the industry is working every day to get those figures as close to zero as possible.
“In fact, the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines for Broilers will be updated this year to help achieve that goal.”
Mr Super added: "Poultry processors consider the welfare of the birds the top priority. Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it does not make economic sense to mistreat the birds.
"FSIS has guidelines and directives setting humane slaughter requirements under the Poultry Products Inspection Act and chicken processors strictly adhere to the National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist.
“The guidelines, which will be updated this year, cover every phase of the chicken’s life and offer science-based recommendations for humane treatment.
“This whole process is routinely audited both internally and by an independent third party and monitored on a continuous basis by FSIS inspectors.
"Companies may receive a non-compliance report relating to animal welfare and will take corrective action when they are not in compliance with FSIS directives or NCC guidelines.
"In terms of stunning, we agree with the American Association of Avian Pathologists and the American College of Poultry Veterinarians that controlled atmospheric stunning (CAS) systems have been demonstrated to be effective for the stunning of commercial poultry, but the overall effect on animal welfare when compared to well-managed electrical stunning systems has not been determined.
“Research has not consistently demonstrated one commercially available stunning method to be superior to another.
“Based on current research and evidence available from North American slaughter facilities, well-managed low voltage and CAS systems are both humane and acceptable methods for stunning of poultry.
"There is no data to suggest that modernising the poultry inspection system would lead to increased non-compliance reports related to the care of the birds.
“It is unfortunate that the inspectors union and animal rights activists are attempting to derail real progress in making our food supply even safer."
However, Humane Farm Animal Care said that the modernisation plan was based on flawed data from a pilot programme used in a very small number of poultry plants.
“This controversial plan can be detrimental to public health as well as have severe detrimental consequences to the welfare of chickens and turkeys,” HFAC said.
“Poultry is not covered by the Humane Slaughter Act. However, food safety regulations require USDA inspectors be at poultry slaughter plants to inspect and identify contaminated poultry and diseased carcases.
“The proposed USDA plan would cut the number of USDA inspectors who are there to examine the birds for diseases by 40 per cent, replacing them with poultry company or processing plant employees, who will not be required to have any training.
“These untrained poultry processing plant employees will be inspecting chickens and turkeys for diseases such as: septicemia, toxemia, cancer, and others to prevent them from entering the food chain.
“Since the poultry plant employees work for the poultry plant itself, there may be a conflict of interest for the poultry employees to allow more birds to be processed.
In addition, this plan allows the increase of the line speeds.
“The line speeds must be slow enough for the inspectors to visually examine the birds.
“This proposal would increase the line speeds dramatically to about three birds per second. That does not bode well for even a trained USDA poultry inspector to examine the birds, let alone for the ability of an untrained poultry company employee to determine the disease status of the birds as they whizz by.”
HFAC added “Pain and suffering for poultry starts with hanging and shackling the birds on the line. The HFAC standards require chickens be hung in shackles by both legs, with each leg placed on a separate shackle, and an appropriate line speed is required in order to do this carefully.
“Most industrial poultry plants shackle only one of the bird’s legs, causing the bird pain and distress, in order to process more birds in less time.
“In addition, the slower line speeds assure the birds are stunned and slaughtered, so that there are NEVER any live birds going into the scalder.
“Industrial poultry slaughter plants can’t meet the HFAC standards because of their line speeds.
“Our poultry slaughter standards require slow line speeds; there are no live birds going alive into the scalder (a slower line speed means that employees have adequate time to ensure that this does not happen).
“Any plant that sent live birds into the scalder would never pass our inspection.”