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Is “humanely slaughtered” the next best thing in industrial meat production?

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

William Neuman’s article in today’s NY Times, Helping chickens go calmly to slaughter, raises interesting questions about how we produce poultry in the U.S. and the shift to more humane practices of meat production:

Two premium chicken producers, Bell & Evans in Pennsylvania and Mary’s Chickens in California, are preparing to switch to a system of killing their birds that they consider more humane. The new system uses carbon dioxide gas to gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.

…Anglia Autoflow, the company that is building the knock-out systems for the two processors, calls the process “controlled atmosphere stunning” but Mr. Pitman said his company is considering the phrase “sedation stunning” for use on its packages. Also on the short-list: “humanely slaughtered,” “humanely processed” or “humanely handled.”

…Mr. Sechler said the system he chose, after years of research, was better than similar gas-stunning systems currently used in Europe. Those systems, he says, often deprive birds of oxygen too quickly, which may cause them to suffer. They are also designed to kill the birds rather than simply knock them out, something that Mr. Sechler is not comfortable with.

“I don’t want the public to say we gas our chickens,” he said.

Animal suffering during slaughter has long been a criticism of animal welfare ethicists and activists.  So does this new approach help allay some of those concerns?

…The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been pushing chicken processors for years to switch to gas stunning systems, in part because it doesn’t believe that [commonly used method of] electrical stunning works.

How big of an impact will these two companies have on total poultry production?

Bell & Evans said it would begin selling chickens slaughtered using the new technology in April. The company, which processes about 840,000 birds a week, distributes its chickens nationwide.

Mary’s, which distributes in several Western states, expects to install the technology in June. The company processes about 200,000 birds a week.

By comparison, a single plant run by a large processor like Tyson Foods may handle more than 1 million birds a week.

As Michael Pollan and others have demonstrated in earlier essays, maximizing food production at a minimal cost is a primary reason why the current mode of industrial agriculture evolved.  Farmers will tell you that humane treatment adds cost to their products, making them more difficult to sell if customers only care about cheap food.  What’s the prospect of winning hearts, minds, and stomachs here?

The gas technology is expensive. Each company said it would cost about $3 million to convert their operations and more over time to run the systems. That makes it a hard sell in a commodity-oriented industry that relies on huge volumes and low costs to turn narrow margins into profits.

Mr. Sechler predicted that consumers would come to demand birds slaughtered in the new way, which would force the industry to gradually switch over.


Photo credit: antiguan_life

2 Responses to “Is “humanely slaughtered” the next best thing in industrial meat production?”

  1. Andrew says:

    Why would someone who cares about the welfare of chickens eat chickens?

  2. RedDirt says:

    Good Lord!! Now this is just too scary. Great article.


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