The Chicken Caucus ducks legislative restraints

(Newscom/EPA/Erik S. Lesser)

Owing to faction politics, we have in Congress a Progressive Caucus, Black Caucus, Human Rights Caucus, Hunger Caucus, Climate Caucus, Urban Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and, hatched recently, the Chicken Caucus.

No joke. In Senate and House, it has about a dozen members, mostly Republicans from Southern states who are obedient to the lobbying and earmarking wishes of the National Chicken Council, the United Egg Producers, the American Egg Board, and corporate giants like Perdue and Tyson long tenured in the industrial farming of chickens. For decades, poultry and egg companies have had few legislative restraints on the cruel treatment of their birds, from the tens of millions of caged laying hens to the 9 billion broiler chickens and other fowl killed annually for their flesh.

Karen Davis, the pioneering founder and director of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit advocating compassionate treatment of domestic fowl, reports in the book Prisoned Chickens and Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry that when Congress enacted the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1958, birds were excluded even though they were -- and remain -- 99 percent of land animals killed for food. The law dealt only with the final seconds of life of the 1 percent -- cattle, pigs, sheep -- while ignoring the months or years of brutal confinement in the cages, stalls and pens of factory farms. In 1995, Congress refused to amend the 1958 law to include birds. Federal courts have dismissed challenges to the legislation.

The Chicken Caucus is currently lining up support for a proposal to accelerate by 25 percent the speed that workers oversee the throat-cutting, scalding and drowning of chickens in the nation's approximate 185 slaughter and evisceration plants. Mechanized processing lines, models of lethal efficiently, can handle as many of 140 birds an hour. The Department of Agriculture, pressured by the industry, wants it upped to 175 an hour.

Most of the poorly paid slaughterhouse laborers who shackle, slice, stun, gut and bleed the bodies of the birds are minorities, according to federal figures cited by The Washington Post: 39 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black and 7 percent Asian. With high injury and turnover rates, these are the invisible people doing the dirty work to ensure that Americans eat an average of 86 pounds of avian body parts annually.

Much of the corporate media, grateful to receive the advertising dollars of flesh-supplying companies from KFC and Popeyes to McDonald's and Wendy's, rarely provide in-depth reporting on the suffering of chickens. Factory farms and their kill floors are akin to fortresses, no entry for outsiders. But not always. Whistleblowing infiltrators from groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Compassion Over Killing and Mercy for Animals have been secretly filming the daily violence. Among the titles, all available on YouTube, are "From Farm to Fridge," "Meet Your Meat," and "45 Days: The Life and Death of a Broiler Chicken." The latter reports that if a human being were raised similar to broiler chickens -- overfed and pumped with growth-promoting drugs -- a child of 2 would weigh 345 pounds.

Paul Shapiro, a senior official of the Humane Society of the United States, has done dozens of undercover investigations in factory farms, including mega-hen sheds. He states, "One of the most insidious practices of the chicken industry is the genetic manipulation of the birds to make them so obese so fast that many have difficulty walking a few pitiful steps before collapsing. They are not only prisoners in the factory farms but are prisoners in their own bodies."

Fearing that the revelations of the animal rights and vegetarian groups may be getting through to a public that may embrace a cruelty-free rather a cruelty-based diet, big agriculture has been prodding politicians to take action. Seven states have passed what are called ag-gag laws: Secret filmers of animal abuse now face arrest, prosecution, fines and jailing. The criminals are not the torturers but those who document it.

To finish on a brighter note, I'm pleased to report that two elementary schools in my Washington neighborhood now have small flocks of chickens in their gardens. Children seeing that the birds' rights and needs are as honored as their pets at home may lead them to take it further: that all chickens everywhere should be treated as lovingly as those clucking, pecking and dust bathing in their schoolyard gardens.

[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. He has been writing for NCR since 1965.]

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