Reports that millions of chickens were fed pet food tainted with the chemical melamine and then slaughtered and sold to consumers have raised questions about food safety. In response, the Food and Drug Administration has appointed a food safety czar and promised to come up with a “visionary strategy” for keeping Americans safe from their own food supply.
The FDA’s new plan may keep melamine out of chicken feed in the future, but it will fall far short of protecting the public from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments linked to animal fat. It will do nothing to keep factory farmers from feeding drugs to broiler chickens to make them grow abnormally large very quickly. And certainly, the FDA’s plan won’t help the nine billion chickens slaughtered in this country every year.
Americans now eat more than one million chickens an hour yet, despite the efforts of pneumonia-racked Senator Hubert Humphrey, who rose from his sick bed to advocate for them on the floor of the House in 1958, there is not a single federal law to protect these animals from abuse. Chicken is on the menu in almost every restaurant in the country and in every non-vegetarian’s freezer. Chicken prices are so low that a live bird’s life costs about ten cents wholesale, if that. The lines on which the birds hang, upside down, as they swing along to their eventual evisceration, move at the rate of three birds per second (182 per minute on average). In other words, in a blur.
The men (slaughterhouse workers are almost exclusively men) who hang the birds, aptly called “live hangers,” pick up the birds who have been dumped from their travel crates onto the floor and jam them by their legs, as quickly as they can, onto the metal hooks that are swinging by. From this point, the conveyor belt moves the birds, squawking and desperately trying to right themselves, to a place where, if all goes according to plan, their heads will pass through an electrical current, not rendering them unconscious – the power is too low for that – but temporarily immobilizing them so that their heads remain in the right position for the next stage: the machine that neatly slices their throats.
Some birds avoid the immobilizer and, by so doing, do not have their heads positioned at the right angle for a tidy cut. If they avoid the knife, the line will deliver them, at least in theory, to a “second stabber,” a man who must recognize that one of the flapping birds whizzing past him, spraying the walls with the blood pouring from their necks, has not been cut. His job is to use his knife to do the deed the machine did not. If he misses them, the birds enter the scalding tank alive, their legs firmly trapped by the metal hooks. If you have ever stood in a shower when the cold water has suddenly disappeared and found yourself jumping out, it isn’t that hard to imagine what it would be like to be trapped, unable to escape water so hot that it is almost boiling the blood inside you. Now imagine experiencing that while being held upside down by your legs, with your head under the water, and you have some idea of what the bird endures.
Because they haven’t been drained of their blood, these birds emerge crimson from the tank and remain that way, even when they are stripped of their feathers in the machine that is their next stop in the slaughter process. They look pathetic: their eyes closed as if sleeping, their bright red bodies limp and naked. You will not see them in the supermarket freezer case, as these birds are thrown into a bin to be ground up for fertilizer or pet food.
Our national obsession with a chicken in every sandwich, salad, box and bucket sends the line rocketing along at a rate that guarantees that “red birds” will emerge from a tank somewhere every minute of every day. It is this desire for chicken flesh that is also responsible for cost-cutting measures such as feeding chickens an abnormal diet. While melamine is not the usual ingredients, other strange things are, including the ground up neural tissue of cattle.
A really effective food czar would figure out that the best way to help people would be to arrest our taste for birds who are interesting, curious, good mothers, protective fathers and capable of figuring out puzzles. As is so often the case, helping animals means better lives for humans too.Ingrid E. Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.GoVeg.com.