Animal rights group accuses Jennie-O and Butterfield of Minnesota of mistreating birds

Animal rights group is asking county attorneys to press charges against two Minnesota companies after thousands of broilers and hundreds of turkeys died from apparently excessive heat exposure at their slaughterhouses this summer .

The allegations made by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) against Jennie-O Turkey and Butterfield Foods stem from observations filed by US Department of Agriculture inspectors at processing plants.

Last month, Washington-based AWI sent letters to Stearns County lawyer Janelle Kendall and Watonwan County lawyer Stephen Lindee, asking them to file a lawsuit against the meat processors under a Minnesota law that prohibits depriving any animal of necessary food, water, or shelter, or keeping them locked up without a change of air.

Unlike cattle and pigs which are protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors do not monitor or enforce animal welfare issues in poultry slaughterhouses, except in cases where this treatment could affect the quality and safety of the food, such as severe bruising.

But USDA inspectors often file “memorandum of maintenance,” or MOI notices, if they see birds die from causes other than slaughter or if they observe inhumane treatment of birds that could violate them. good industry business practices.

The AWI, which obtained multiple MOIs under the Freedom of Information Act, found that 2,552 out of 6,000 chickens were found dead on a truck trailer outside the Butterfield Foods processing plant in Butterfield, Minnesota, June 9.

The trailer had been parked overnight on a dirt lot outside the factory. Most of the fatalities were birds on the right side of the trailer, which were more exposed to the sun and heat in the afternoon.

The food company did not respond to an email request for comment and did not answer the phone.

AWI found five cases between April and June that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of turkeys on trailers outside a Jennie-O Turkey factory in Melrose, Minn.

Hormel, based in Austin, Minn., Owner of Jennie-O, said an employee of the third-party contractor he hires to load the turkeys onto transport trailers made a miscalculation “which resulted in a reduction of air movement during transport “.

“Although the actions of the contractor were not intentional, due to the company’s commitment to the management of animal welfare, Jennie-O requested that the individual be removed from the position and added additional training sessions, ”Hormel said in a lengthy statement to the Star Tribune. “Additional procedures, including verification of bird counts, have been implemented to ensure that appropriate guidelines are followed.”

The MOIs show several consecutive days in early June of temperatures hovering around 95 degrees at the Melrose plant in Jennie-O when a USDA inspector noticed large flocks of panting turkeys with drooping wings, two key signs of stress thermal.

An inspector noticed that feathers and debris were blocking several fans and that the foggers did not have the proper airflow to effectively cool the birds. The inspector called for immediate action which took several days to implement, resulting in additional AMIs and meetings with management to stress the importance of bird comfort.

“These recordings are basically a memo to remind [processors] their own standards, ”said Erin Sutherland, AWI staff counsel. “There is no enforcement action taken against them by the USDA. Nothing really comes out of it. “

Dr Michelle Kromm, animal care manager at Hormel and chief veterinarian for Jennie-O, said animal welfare issues are taken seriously and addressed immediately.

There are four federal laws that deal with the welfare and treatment of animals, said Beth Ventura, associate professor of animal welfare in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Two of these laws relate to farm animals, including the Humane Slaughter Practices Act, but none apply to poultry.

“Poultry do not count as animals from a legal standpoint, at the federal level,” Ventura said. “It’s a little crazy.”

There is a patchwork of state-level anti-cruelty laws and statutes across the United States; some include poultry and some do not.

“The United States does not tend to approach improving animal welfare through a legislative framework,” Ventura said. “We have other mechanisms in place, through which industry and society have tended to channel their efforts.”

Consumer demands, industry-farmer collaborations, and third-party labeling or verification programs combine to form generally accepted guidelines for the humane handling of broilers and turkeys.

Part of the problem, Ventura said, is that the poultry industry is so much bigger than cattle, pigs and sheep that it is more difficult to ensure humane treatment for all.

In 2020, nearly 9.76 billion land animals were killed for food in the United States, with chickens accounting for 95% of all slaughter. Turkeys were far behind, at 223 million, according to USDA data.

Humans also have a different perception of birds compared to large livestock.

“Poultry tend to generate less social concern as a species,” Ventura said. “People care about animals that are cute, perceived as intelligent and familiar. It is more difficult to identify with a chicken and that can result in less social concern.”

Animal welfare science as a field has developed since the adoption of the Humane Slaughter Methods Act of 1958. At the time, there was a significant debate over whether birds are sensitive.

“The field of animal cognition is exploding. We realize how incredibly complex these animals are. Every day they make decisions which are life or death,” Ventura said. “There is no doubt that they are sensitive. Of course they are sensitive. All species of cattle are.”

Lindee, the county attorney, said he was reviewing the letter from the advocacy group. Kendall of Stearns County has confirmed that her office received the letter, but she cannot initiate criminal proceedings unless she is fired by law enforcement.

“So this will have to be sent to the law enforcement agency with that jurisdiction, and I have yet to determine which agency it would be,” Kendall wrote in an email response to the phone call from ‘a journalist. “We will direct the shipper to this agency.”

Sutherland said AWI would be interested in sharing the information with law enforcement, “but for now we would like to have a direct response from the attorney general first.”

The AWI has a history of pushing for changes in the treatment of farm animals, including poultry. Last year, the organization filed a joint complaint with Farm Sanctuary, another animal rights group, against the USDA for failing to protect the welfare of chickens and turkeys raised for food. human.

This case is still active.

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