• Becci Pigeon

‘Depopulation’, ‘culling’ and other euphemisms

Updated: Jan 20

Earlier this month we discussed the issue of continued live export of farmed animals during the COVID-19 crisis, and how it puts us all at risk. But how else have the animals we eat been affected by the pandemic?

As the crisis has continued, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants have proven themselves a major hotspot for infection. So as some plants have reluctantly closed and the supply chain has begun to crumble, the industry has suddenly found itself with not enough workers, too little demand and too many animals.

So what is an industry driven purely by profit to do? First, stay open—at all costs, and against the advice of all medical bodies. The employees are usually people who desperately need some form of income and don’t have other options. If plants are open and they don’t show up, they lose their jobs. So they clock in, all the while knowing that they’re putting themselves, their coworkers and their families at risk of infection. The process still isn’t moving quickly enough, though: schools and restaurants are closed, and nobody is buying. Dairy farmers are pouring milk down the drain, and there are still too many animals.

So the second thing that must be done is finding a way to deal with the animals, who cost the industry money every extra second they stay alive.

On 8 April, chicken producer Allen Harim announced that the company was going to begin ‘depopulating flocks in the field’, a peculiar choice of words considering that it’s vanishingly unlikely that any of their birds have ever seen the sun, let alone spent time in a field. Thus at least two million chickens have been ‘depopulated’, a process which some news outlets have opted to define as being ‘humanely euthanised’.

When it comes to chickens, there are two ways to achieve this and neither qualify as humane by any metric. These are ventilation shutdown and foaming. Ventilation shutdown is the cheapest, simplest method—for the humans, not the birds—and is already in use in the U.S. (It’s worth noting that ventilation shutdown was approved in the U.K. in 2006, though whether it’s been implemented since then is uncertain.) It requires only that the ventilation be shut off and the heat be turned on to the temperature of 40 C—though the latter is not always necessary as thousands of birds packed into a small space without any ventilation can easily reach 40 F on their own.

Paul Shapiro, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, described this process as ‘horrific’ and ‘essentially baking the birds to death’. Very little research has been done into how long it takes the birds to die; the USDA has suggested 30 to 40 minutes, perhaps, but acknowledges a lack of certainty. Others has estimated 10 to 25 minutes depending on the size of the warehouse but that nobody knows ‘what the birds experience in that time.’

Foaming is perhaps less brutal, but as it takes more time to set up and costs money, the industry likely has less incentive to use it. It entails covering the chickens with a layer of suffocating foam, causing them to die within one to four minutes. Poultry scientist Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph has decried the process, describing it as ‘a horribly inhumane way to kill birds. You can’t tell if they are suffering or vocalizing because they are covered up.’

Meanwhile, pigs ‘are backing up on farms with nowhere to go, leaving farmers with tragic choices to make‘. (If they think that’s tragic, somebody had better tell those farmers the bad news about what happens once the pigs get off the transport truck at the slaughterhouse.) The smallest piglets are being killed; their bodies turned into compost or fertiliser. Pregnant sows are receiving injections which cause them to miscarry or are simply killed before they give birth. Their bodies are being dumped en masse in landfills. What’s more, it’s predicted the number of pigs killed will rise sharply in the coming weeks.

No matter how the industry attempts to sugarcoat it, these animals are being killed en masse and they are paying the price for a pandemic we brought upon ourselves by our avarice for their flesh. While we are all suffering as a result, they remain the ultimate victims.

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