Rethinking Christmas Dinner

By Reannon Peterson

If you just enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner with a turkey at the center of your table, then you've never been to the Butterball slaughterhouse in Ozark, Ark. Undercover investigators from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals worked there from April to July of this year. What they found isn't much fun to think about at this joyous time of year, but we Americans are compassionate people who don't want the vulnerable among us to suffer. So perhaps, before we shop for the Christmas dinner, we can take a few minutes to consider what happens to turkeys before they get to the grocery-store freezer.

By now you've guessed that what the investigators documented isn't pretty. This Butterball plant slaughters 50,000 turkeys a day in an atmosphere best described as a horrible mixture of fear and cruelty. Something about working in a slaughterhouse (probably the killing) seems to desensitize workers. At the Butterball plant, employees punched turkeys in their heads, took them by the legs and swung them against walls and railings and even stomped on them. One worker instructed, "If you jump on their stomachs right, they'll pop."

Dr. Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor who designs more humane slaughterhouses and advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on animal handling, watched the investigators' video footage and commented, "This plant has both severe animal welfare problems and a lack of management that needs correcting."

If you're still reading, get ready for the really bad news: Butterball isn't all that unusual. PETA has investigated many slaughterhouses and filed complaints with the USDA that have resulted in citations and fines for the plants. Part of the problem is in the laws�or lack of them. Even thoough turkeys and chickens constitute more than 98 percent of the land animals eaten in the U.S., they aren't protected by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the only federal law that protects animals in slaughterhouses.

Currently, turkeys are hung upside-down by their feet and pulled through an electrical water bath, which paralyzes them but doesn't stop them from feeling pain. They are then dragged across a blade that is supposed to cut their throats and dumped into a tank of scalding-hot water for defeathering. If there are any glitches in the line�for example, if a turkey is hung impropperly and misses the blade�the bird goes into the boiling water alive and awarre. This happens often�according to the USDA, 3.7 million birds were scalded to death in slaughterhouses in 2002.

By now you're saying, "There must be a better way." There is. It's called "controlled atmosphere killing" (CAK). CAK uses inert gases, such as nitrogen and argon, mixed with carbon dioxide to kill birds quickly and painlessly. Turkeys and chickens can be moved directly from the truck to the CAK device while they are still in their transport containers. No slaughterhouse employees handle the birds directly. Experts say that the installation of this system pays for itself in two years and also improves product quality and yield, is better for workers and lowers contamination. Although about 75 percent of turkeys in the United Kingdom are killed using CAK, not one major poultry plant in the U.S. uses it.

It's easy these days to chow down on an all-the-trimmings, none-of-the-cruelty holiday dinner. Chances are you'll have at least one vegetarian at your table this Christmas to whom you can serve Tofurky, Unturkey or the brand-new Garden Protein Veggie Turkey Breast with wild rice and cranberry stuffing. But even if we are going to gather around the table with our heads bowed over a bird, at the very least, the turkey deserves a humane death. Implementation of CAK and the protection of birds by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act would go a long way toward eliminating unspeakable suffering.

Reannon Peterson is manager of vegan campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

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