PETA Says Gassing Chickens More Humane, Some Disagree (Guest Blog)

chicken slaughter

Cruel, but is CAK a better alternative? (src)

A few weeks ago, PETA reveled in what they call an “innovation” in factory farming here in the States (see “PETA Prompts Innovation in U.S. Chicken Farming“). They note that two major chicken suppliers, Bell & Evans and Mary’s Chickens, are slowly making the switch to Controlled Atmosphere Killing, or CAK, which replaces the cruel, torturous “shackle and electrocute” method currently in place in almost all slaughterhouse currently. This raises many issues, most notably, is PETA being hypocritical in promoting chicken slaughter? Or, are they merely trying to reduce the suffering of chickens inevitably headed towards slaughter. To answer this, at first, I thought we’d hear from a friend of mine.

Alan has been vegan for a number of years, but started out like me, eating meat and in general being unaware of the widespread animal abuse that occurs in factory farming. After his gradual change to veganism (a few years before mine), he never forced it on me, but instead was a silent influence that I credit along with a few other friends as one of the reasons I went vegan – the ethical, environmental, and health reasons are primary, but without the influence of my friends, it probably would not have happened. Here, Alan takes a skeptical look at the role PETA plays in the above “innovation” and discusses the larger implications of the self-proclaimed “largest animal rights organization in the world.”

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I’ll have to say, this article started out entirely factual in the title.  PETA, in their push towards Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) has indeed innovated US chicken farming.  Not to the benefit of the chickens who are being murdered for their flesh, but for the benefit of the farmers profiting off of their exploitation and the pocketbook of PETA.  After that this article starts to confuse fact with fiction.

First off, let’s describe what happens in CAS.  During the killing process, rather than having to be removed from their cages chickens are exposed to a gas (usually argon) that eliminates oxygen from their environment causing them to suffocate to death in their cages rather than having to be removed by workers while still alive and flailing to be put in a vat of electrified water to be temporarily stunned prior to being beheaded.  This is a process that gives slaughterhouses a double-hit.  The “painless death” appeases many uncomfortable with the idea of causing “unnecessary suffering” to these chickens and additionally the process both improves the quality of the carcasses as well as the efficiency of the slaughterhouse facilities.  Two logical fallacies lie in the last sentence.  “Painless death” and “unnecessary suffering” are ideas that completely ignore the fact that a chicken’s life is complete misery leading up to that point.  Their use as a slave forces them into a life of absolute hell, so for one to say that they “compassionately” end that chicken’s life is to ignore the fact that the consumers of that chicken’s carcass are what caused her a lifetime of misery and pain.  What will stop that misery?  A reduction in the demand for those chickens as a product.  What can cause that reduction?  Certainly not making the process of slaughtering them more profitable, more appealing to consumers, and more equitable for the exploiters.

So what does CAS do?  It does several things.  It makes the consumption of chicken carcasses more appealing to consumers.  It makes the production process more efficient and profitable for the exploiters.  It makes money for large animal welfare organizations like PETA and HSUS.  What it fails to do, is point out the obvious that the only way to not cause a chicken (or goose, or other fowl) harm is to realize that it is not an item but a living, sentient being with fundamental rights not to be tortured or killed.

Even the most ardent meat-eaters will realize that the slaughter of an animal for their consumption is inherently painful and cruel.  Whether that realization makes them willing to change their actions or not, other than extremist cases; they don’t like that.  What better way would there be to allow those people to not change their actions than to make the action better without them having to do anything?  Even better, they can avoid a couple restaurants or purchase a different brand of carcass at their local grocery store to make themselves feel like they’re making the “compassionate” choice.  This makes people feel great about their exploitation and allows them to reframe their consumption in a positive light, rather than questioning the inherent problems of their consumption of carcasses in the first place.  Will anyone stop consuming animal products because they’re told that CAS is “better” than conventional slaughterhouse practices?  No!  In fact, they’ll often consume more mistakenly having been led into thinking they’re doing the right thing and making a positive step.

This is especially true in cases like KFC Canada who massively improved their sales by “slowly phasing out” conventional slaughter methods for CAS.  Consumers got a green light from large animal welfare organizations like PETA and HSUS and sales were immediately boosted.  Yet somehow, the sale of more dead chickens gets double-spoke into a “huge win for the animals” and both KFC and the large animal welfare groups rake in their money while the consumers feel great about their new compassionate choice (that’s essentially the same as their old choice).  The idea that more chickens dying is a win is so ridiculously speciesist I won’t even go there.

This isn’t just limited to CAS — it’s prevalent in all “happy” exploitation:  Humane-rased meats, cage-free eggs, “freedom food” labeling, recycled wool or leather, “natural” dairy etc… these labels all serve a purpose. To mask the inherent exploitation required to produce the product and to spin that exploitation around and make the end consumer feel good about their decision to make a positive step towards the welfare of animals. It’s the sort of political spin politicians should be jealous of it’s so effective.

stop eatin

One of PETA's ad campaigns, questionably legal (src)

On to the second thing that CAS does.  Making the production process more efficient, higher quality, and therefore putting more money in the pockets of the producers (in addition to their profit increases from the increased demand due to consumers being more apt to buy their “happy” products).

What PETA or HSUS won’t put in their articles is that CAS is the industry standard for new slaughter facilities.  As you can see from the initial description of how it works workers don’t have to remove live, flailing chickens from their cages to stun them and then hang them on a line.  They remove the lifeless already-asphyxiated carcasses.  This increases line efficiency in those slaughterhouses allowing more chicken carcasses to be processed in the same amount of time that conventional methods took.  Additionally, the overhead cost (portable CAS systems are around $2,500 brand new) is incredibly low for those facilities so the long-term profit margin is huge.  Additionally, worker injury and fatigue are both massively reduced again raising profit margins for the animal exploiters.

Abolitionist Gary Francione has written greatly about these single issue campaigns.  In his article on CAS he lists multiple articles showing the industry’s move towards CAS over conventional slaughter methods without any need to play it up as a “compassionate” choice.  Here are a few of the quotes, but there are many more on Francione’s site:

Around 140,000 broilers per day are processed at the Flixton plant …. A company official said that the CAS was installed to improve bird welfare [and] worker ergonomics. As a side benefit, the plant now runs the line faster than before. Flixton processed only 110,000 birds per day prior to installing the CAS.
—Watt Poultry USA article, February 2006

On the turkey line … each hanger places around 7.66 birds per minute in the shackles … compared to around 5.125 birds per minute in a U.S. plant. This gives a pounds-per-man-hour improvement of almost 50%, because the hangers do not have to remove the birds from the cages by hand, like they do in a traditional U.S. … live-hanging operation.
—Watt Poultry USA article concerning Amadori, February 2006

…and even an article from HSUS themselves discussing the benefits of CAS:

CAK [controller atmosphere killing] results in cost savings and increased revenues by decreasing carcass downgrades, contamination, and refrigeration costs; increasing meat yields, quality, and shelf life; and improving worker conditions. Without live shackling and electrical stunning, CAK results in fewer broken bones and less bruising and hemorrhaging. The reduction in carcass defects increases boning yield and deboned meat quality. CAK has been shown to reduce bruising by as much as 94 percent and bone fractures by as much as 80 percent. Conservatively assuming that CAK increases yield only 1 percent, a plant processing 1 million broilers per week with an average dressed carcass weight of 4.5 pounds and wholesale price of $0.80 per pound would increase annual revenue by $1.87 million after adopting CAK. (citations omitted)

The latter of those quotations also brings into light another profit-increase of CAS, the “improved quality” of the carcass.  Many articles have been like these two by poultry industry magazines and organizations about the improvement in carcass quality gained from CAS.  Further proof that the industry is moving in that direction for monetary, efficiency, and quality reasons and giving people a “compassionate” reason to choose to eat poultry is only adding to their increase in profit, driving up the demand for products that are inherently exploitative, and making consumers feel good about choices that they might otherwise question.

So why on Earth would one argue for CAS as an advocate of animal rights?  Large animal groups like PETA and HSUS have great reasons to (the same reason the exploiters have) — money!

live poultry

Better, or worse? (src)

PETA goes to great efforts to portray themselves as the extreme of animal welfare.  This benefits them, as well as the poultry industry because when PETA says “Hey, people might not go vegan but WE CAN CHANGE THIS” (ignoring completely the fact that production is going the way of CAS regardless) it gives people a sense of a “win” and shows that if they donate to these organizations change is happening.  Little do those people know, that change is happening anyway and it’s just being used as a publicity-stunt to get donations.  Essentially, PETA is selling indulgences just like the Catholic church did during the Inquisition: “Eat chicken?  Feel bad about the way those chickens are treated?  Don’t worry, just give us your money and we’ll make it better.”

It’s a line of thinking that doesn’t bring anyone closer to veganism – it just keeps people more stagnant and happy in their exploitation.  This mentality can easily be seen in the wave of comments from omnivores to the original article who now feel more comfortable about their exploitation:

“Now THIS is the kind of thing that I like to see PETA doing. In stead of pushing your crazy vegan world on us meat-eaters, I can understand humane killing of animals. Some animals were put here to eat. Our physiology is made for eating meat. And I like that PETA understood that in the CAK implementation.”

“WOW, its news like this that really brightens your day. I unfortunetly don’t eat veg or fruits due to numerous reasons and therefore the vegan option is not feasible for me. So hearing these amazing breakthroughs is GREAT. Thanxs PETA for your amazing work…now next step…get South Africa to implement the CAK method! :)”

“They use CAK in European McDonalds, and they use free range eggs and recyclabe packaging. McDonalds is on the brink of becoming a place I can actually eat! So close!”

“Baby Steps! This is awesome! I’m a vegetarian of 8 years, however my children and husband are not. I will at least feel somewhat comfortable taking them to these restaurants which purchase their chickens from CAK! Job well done to all who made this possible. Peace”

…along with a multitude of comments as to how great this step is from people who did not identify themselves as omnivore or vegan.

So there you go…The ball is in your court.  Make money for large animal groups and exploiters who profit from the murder of non-humans?  Or advocate for veganism and animal rights and make the dent where it counts — on the consumer demand end of the supply-and-demand chain.  Sure, some people might not go vegan overnight.  They might take steps towards it, or the advocacy might be better spent on someone who will consider it.  But making those who won’t feel better about their actions only ensures complacency from those on the fence.

The saying is still true.  Empty cages, not bigger cages.

Alan can be contacted by e-mail at http://scr.im/26ea.

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  • Niilo

    If my country was in the practice of enslaving and killing a certain segment of the human population, I would not fight to have those humans killed in a different manner. I’d fight to have them freed! CAK/CAS is just the same. If we take animal interests seriously, if we truly believe that we shouldn’t cause unnecessary harm to animals, then we shouldn’t accept (let alone promote) new methods of killing and torture.

    PETA is to animal rights what Iran is to women’s rights.

    – Niilo

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  • Vaughn. South Africa

    people who claim to be animal lovers should think again. To me cruelty is a fundamental sin! anyone who eats meat supports the farming and killing of millions of animals(for a big mac etc etc). something which is not a necessity to live healthily. in fact, quite the opposite. Asking a person who eats dead decaying chemical infested flesh of tortured animals on a regular basis what they think of this new gas system is pointless. They support cruelty anyway by their actions.. all it will do is to make them feel a little better about themselves while they continue through life unconscious.

  • Es

    What i find funny is “animal lovers” who have pet dogs and cats. They eat these enslaved animals too. Many animal rights groups support “saving” stray and feral domestic dogs and domestic cats, as if they are at risk for extinction, by feeding them meat of livestock animals. People should wake up.
    Of course, the other side of the coin is – that for every one of us that becomes Vegan, the price of meat will likely drop enough to allow more of it to be purchased. It would take a massive turn in the populations diet to make an impact such as a true reduction in Livestock industry.

    organic, and farm raised and all that other hippie stuff- create inefficiencies that require more food, and fuel, and land to raise the same amount of meat, of vegetable matter.

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  • Kamal K

    Bullcrap article. Chicken are grown for food. It makes no sense to say that their suffering will reduce if people won’t eat them, because they will go extinct if people don’t want to eat them. Ethical treatment of birds and animals is a serious concern to many people. And those who think it is a joke should just mind their business and leave it to people who care instead of giving their useless unwanted opinions.