How the U.S. kills sick & “spent” chickens

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2004:

SAN DIEGO–Calls to television stations
and letters to newspapers indicate that Americans
were mostly shocked by coverage of live burial
and sometimes live incineration of chickens in
Souteast Asia to stop the spread of avian flu
H5N1–but live burial of chickens is also common
here, to dispose of “spent” hens and surplus
male chicks from laying hen “factories.”
The U.S. egg industry kills about 170
million spent hens and as many as 235 million
male chicks per year. In 2002 about 111 million
spent hens were killed in U.S. and Canadian
slaughterhouses. Nearly 59 million hens, along
with the male chicks, were killed by other
means. That number is expected to increase by
about 21 million in 2004, warned Poultry Times
writer Barbara Olenik in September 2003.
“The USDA purchased approximately 30
million spent hens a year through their canned
boned and diced chicken purchase programs,
making it the largest market for spent hens,”
Olenick explained. “However, in July 2003 the
USDA announced new specifications that fowl
producers must meetÅ due to complaints of bone
fragments and injuries to consumers in the
National School Lunch Program.”

United Egg Producers estimated that the
inability of many producers to meet the new specs
would leave “13 million to 15 million spent hens
annually without a market.”
Earlier, Olenick wrote, the Valley
Fresh slaughterhouse in Water Valley,
Mississippi, closed in anticipation of the new
specs, leaving 22 million to 25 million spent
hens per year to be killed elsewhere.
When there are no slaughter markets,
explained Animal Liberation author Peter Singer
and DawnWatch animal advocacy newsgroup host
Karen Dawn in a December 2003 commentary for the
Los Angeles Times, “Spent hens’ are often packed
into containers and bulldozed. Or they are
gassed using carbon dioxide distributed unevenly
among tens of thousands of birds. It is common
for them to die slow, painful deaths.”
It is also increasingly common for spent
hens to be killed by live maceration, long the
standard means of killing surplus chicks. The
remains are fed to pigs, cattle, or other
chickens. The chicks are pulverized after as
many as will fit are shoved into bags by “chick
sexers,” who are typically low-paid and poorly
educated young women working in an assembly-line
Job turnover, absenteeism,
psychological trauma, and substance abuse are
common among chick-sexers, ANIMAL PEOPLE has
been told by meat industry union representatives,
who have found in trying to organize them that
the instability of the workforce is as formidable
an obstacle as the considerable employer
hostility to unions.
“A macerator is just a fancy name for
something that crushes and kills baby chickens.
It is ugly and inhumane,” Vermont veterinarian
Peggy Larsen told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Not even mentioned in the current edition
of the American Veterinary Medical Association
Report on Euthanasia (2000), live maceration is
nonetheless among the generally approved and
recommended methods of killing both spent hens
and surplus chicks, according to guidelines
posted by the South Dakota State University
Department of Animal and Range Sciences.
“Carbon dioxide delivered via a mobile
killing unit with an on-board delivery system,
cervical dislocation, or instant maceration
using a specially designed high-speed grinder,
are acceptable on-farm slaughter methods when
properly performed,” says the SDSU poultry
management web site, in a statement jointly
attributed to Joy Mench of the University of
California at Davis and Paul B. Siegel of the
Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Mensch, director of the U.C Davis Center
for Animal Wel-fare, more cautiously endorses
live maceration at the CAW web site:
“Maceration in a high-speed grinder results in
rapid death, and is considered a humane method
for disposing of young chicks and embryonated
eggs. Only grinders specifically designed for
disposal of poultry, which have blades that turn
at 5000 or more RPM, should be used…The grinder
should be properly maintained and must not be
overloaded, as birds may be incompletely
macerated under these circumstances.”

AVMA inaction

The absence of specific AVMA guidelines
on live maceration and a broad exemption included
in the AVMA Report on Euthanasia for “mass
euthanasia” in event of emergencies are at issue
in continuing controversy over efforts to contain
an outbreak of Newcastle disease that spread from
fighting cocks to laying hens slightly more than
a year ago in southern California.
“When a horrified neighbor saw ranchers
cramming live chickens into a wood chipper,
animal advocates thought they had a winning
[anti-cruelty] case. Karen Davis of United
Poultry Concerns led the push for prosecution,”
wrote Peter Singer and Karen Dawn.
“Unfortunately, a San Diego deputy
district attorney found no criminal intent by the
ranchers. She concluded that they ‘were just
following professional advice’ from two
veterinarians. The ranchers named Gregg Cutler
as one,” Singer and Dawn continued. “Cutler
denies directly authorizing the use of a chipper,
but says he has no problem with it. He is on the
animal welfare committee of the AVMA.”
Said Cutler to Jia-Rui Chong of the Los
Angeles Times, “If it is done properly with
correct equipment, it is a humane way of
disposing of birds in an emergency.”
United Poultry Concerns has been
demanding since March 2003 that Cutler be removed
from the AVMA animal welfare committee, and
unsuccessfully asked the American Association of
Avian Pathologists to rescind an award it gave
Culter for “outstanding contributions to avian
AVMA executive vice president Bruce
Little said at the AVMA web site that, “It is
absolutely absurd and ludicrous to believe that
any veterinary medical association…could or
would advocate throwing live chickens into a wood
chipper.” But Little has defended Cutler.
Veterinary Practice News reporter Lori
Luechtefeld wrote in January 2004 that according
to Little, “The AVMA is gathering facts
concerning the complaints” against Cutler, “and
will hold a judicial hearing no earlier than
February. If acquitted, Cutler will remain on
the animal welfare board. If Cutler’s AVMA
membership is suspended or revoked, he will be
removed from the welfare committee. If Cutler is
censured or put on probation, it will be up to
the judicial committee to decide whether he
remains on the welfare committee.”
Peggy Larsen has little hope that the
AVMA hearing will result in anything good for
“The AVMA does not address the treatment
of animals in factory farms,” Larsen reminded
ANIMAL PEOPLE. “They support battery caging hens
and keeping sows in gestation crates. They have
had many chances to change their policies,”
Larsen continued. “For years, [Albany, New
York veterinarian] Holly Cheever has presented
scientific evidence that forced molting causes
the needless death of many hens at egg factories.
I have twice presented information on the
injuries and deaths inflicted on calves during
rodeo roping. The Animal Welfare Committee has
never responded. This year the American
Association of Equine Practitioners, under the
AVMA umbrella, gave their annual humane award to
the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.”
Still, Larsen believes the effort to
hold Cutler responsible is worthwhile. “Because
of the wood chipper killing,” Larsen said,
“there are now many more people who know what
happens to spent hens. It was the first time I
heard about it,” she acknowledged, even though
she was once a USDA meat inspector.
While the woodchipper furor raged, Ohio
authorities lauded a series of business-as-usual
resolutions of problems involving spent hens at
Buckeye Egg Farms.
Begun in 1982 as Agri-General Inc. by
German egg baron Anton Pohlmann, Buckeye changed
names in 1998, but failed to shake a reputation
as perhaps the most notorious of all factory egg
Starting factory egg production in Lower
Saxony in 1971. Pohlmann became the biggest egg
producer in Europe, but was barred from further
production in Germany in 1997 due to repeated
violations of pollution and occupational laws.
In September 1994 Pohlmann also became
one of the few factory farmers ever convicted of
cruelty, for killing 60,000 hens who had
salmonella at one of his German facilities by
cutting off their water, food, and air
The Pohlmann record in Ohio was little
different. At peak as many as 14 million
chickens produced up to 2.6 billion eggs per year
at sites in four counties, amounting to about 4%
of the total U.S. egg production volume–but
Buckeye was fined nearly $1 million during the
1990s for a variety of air and water quality
Pohlmann retired in 2002, and put his
facilities up for sale. The problems continued.
In July 2003 Ohio authorities at last ordered
Buckeye to close each barn it “depopulated” of
spent hens, beginning in August, to achieve a
complete shutdown by July 2004.
Warning that this might mean killing as
many as 576,000 chickens per week, Buckeye
appealed, managing to delay implementation of
the order until mid-November 2003, with a new
shutdown deadline of October 2004.
Animal advocates meanwhile recalled how
about one million hens died from dehydration,
hunger, and exposure after a tornado hit some of
the Buckeye barns in September 2000. The
Ooh-Mah-Nee Sanctuary in Hunker, Pennsylvania
rescued more than 1,000 hens from the wreckage,
about 400,000 were rendered, and the
rest–living or dead–were bulldozed and buried,
local news media reported.
In early August 2003 Ooh-Mah-Nee was
allowed to rescue 1,048 hens. Buckeye operations
director Bill Leininger told Clevel-and Plain
Dealer reporter Fran Henry that the company might
have to bulldoze or burn millions of others alive
to meet the shutdown deadline. But it was
essentially theatre. In early February 2004 the
Ohio Department of Agriculture granted operating
permits for the Buckeye barns to Ohio Fresh Eggs
Inc., owned by Orland Bethel and Don Hershey,
who bought the operation from Pohlmann. They are
to invest $60 million in improvements to reduce
environmental hazards at one of the four Buckeye
sites. All of the barns may be restocked.
Not restocking the “depopulated” barns
was, all along, the only evident departure from
the Buckeye routine.

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