Commentary: Slowing down slaughter speeds is a step forward, but we can do far better

By Ingrid Newkirk

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

President Joe Biden’s recent decision to dismantle a Trump-era program that allowed slaughterhouses to raise slaughter-line speeds should be applauded by all, regardless of politics. The program — implemented by at least eight slaughterhouses — relies on employees to inspect pig carcasses and perform other tasks as bodies go whizzing by at breakneck speed. It cocks a snoot at anyone who values animal welfare, worker safety or the food supply.

In March, a federal district court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t thoroughly evaluate the program’s impact on worker safety when it allowed slaughterhouses to eliminate any already-sparse restrictions on line speeds.

When it was first implemented, food inspectors said that pork was “more likely to contain feces, sex organs, toenails, bladders and unwanted hair” as a result of this plan. Of course, the program also increases animal suffering, as what the animals endure is not even a consideration when workers must slaughter as many animals as possible in the shortest possible time.

Pig slaughterhouses will have until the end of June to reduce line speeds to the previous legal limit, which had already been roundly criticized for being too high: 1,106 pigs per hour or 18 pigs per minute. Not even Superman would be able to examine a body for disease at that rate.

Slaughterhouses are dangerous for both man and beast. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, slaughterhouse employees endure about 16 times as many illnesses and injuries as the average American worker. When COVID-19 swept through slaughterhouses, some Tyson Foods supervisors allegedly took bets on how many slaughter workers would get sick.

Biden had already rejected a proposal to increase chicken slaughter line speeds. Chicken slaughterhouse workers have complained of having to wear diapers because they’ve been denied bathroom breaks, and “60 Minutes” described the liquid often seen in the bottom of a package of chicken in the supermarket as “fecal soup.”

Small wonder that USDA inspectors often state that they don’t eat meat. They’ve seen too much to be able to stomach it, and anyone concerned about animals, slaughterhouse employees or food safety would do well to follow their example.

Dismantling the program is a good thing but not a significant sign of progress. Having stood inside several slaughterhouses, I can confirm that they are egregiously cruel. Even after the line speed is reduced, animals will still be hung upside down, scalded and bled to death, sometimes while they’re still conscious, as government reports show. Newborn pigs are often killed before they even reach the slaughterhouse — workers commonly slam their heads into the concrete floor, also known as “thumping.”

Pigs, chickens, cows and other animals experience pain and fear, just as humans do. In nature, they play, explore and love. They have impressive memories and problem-solving skills. Piglets learn to run to their mothers’ voices, and mother pigs “sing” to their piglets while nursing.

Chickens talk to their chicks while they’re still inside the shell and in behavioral studies have been shown going to great lengths not only to protect them but also to find places to build nests away from prying human eyes.

All animals have personalities and emotions, not just the dogs and cats we have in our homes. It is only a lack of familiarity with them, and an upbringing steeped in speciesism, that leads us to believe that some living beings are meant for the table.

While the previous administration’s inhumane — and unsafe — slaughter program is coming to an end, the suffering that we may find inconvenient to examine closely will continue as long as people choose to eat flesh.

Let’s not return to the way things were — we should move forward and focus on vegan meats and other tasty vegan foods. There’s no need to wait for politicians to protect animals or human health — PETA will gladly send you a free vegan starter kit.

Ingrid Newkirk is the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Virginia.