At Butterfield Foods Company, egg-laying hens past their prime are strung up by their feet, fed through a neck-cutting conveyor, and scalded in a tank of boiling water -- often fully conscious, the Humane Society says.
In late 2014, an undercover Humane Society investigator spent 57 days working at the Butterfield, Minnesota slaughtering plant, documenting what happened to the hens after they were unloaded from packed, feces-strewn trucks. The report, released Monday, took Butterfield Foods by surprise. A company lawyer condemned it as a complete fabrication.
Watch the Humane Society's undercover footage:
"There's nothing substantiating this. More important than that, the guy who took the picture showing that there was nobody standing in line when these live birds are getting by ... left his post," said Terry Fruth of Fruth, Jamison & Elsass. "There are live birds in places they shouldn't have been. We don't know what happened to them, but it was this guy's job to make sure it didn't happen."
Usually, when hens are no longer useful for laying eggs, they are gassed on a farm and processed for low-grade meat products such as dog food and farm feed. Other times, they are sent to Butterfield -- motto "We Love Old Hens" -- to be slaughtered for consumption.
The investigator reported that Butterfield workers and managers not only tortured hens, but actively tried to conceal evidence of inefficiencies in the process that would offend U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. The Humane Society says it's easy to tell when the killing floor razors miss a hen -- the carcass comes out of the boiler bright red and twitching as opposed to a limp white, because cooking a bird alive causes all the blood to rush to the skin. Footage shows those birds are tossed into a bucket, and the Humane Society says they're thrown away before they reach USDA inspectors.
"Our investigator ... was so disturbed by the movement of the limbs and the eyes of these birds that he consulted with the manager of the pinning room who said, 'Yeah, that's what happens when their throats don't get cut,' and walked away," said the Humane Society's Paul Schapiro during a conference call with reporters on Monday.
Butterfield responded that when it comes to chickens, calling them "alive" at all is a misnomer because they can't think or suffer pain.
That age-old guilt anesthetic has pretty much been entirely debunked. All the same, Fruth added that hens may turn red for a variety of reasons: a bacterial disease, a skin infection, or if the blood wasn't properly drained.
The Humane Society filed an animal cruelty complaint with the Watonwan County Sheriff and another inspection complaint with the USDA. At the heart of their ire: Federal regulations exempt poultry from the humane slaughter act, allowing for archaic stunning techniques and assembly line slaughter of chickens that would be illegal with cows and pigs.
The Butterfield Foods undercover exposé is the nation's first investigation of a spent hen slaughter plant, according to the Humane Society.
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