An animal-rights group is suing California, charging that the state fails to enforce humane slaughter laws in poultry plants.
The PETA Foundation says the California Department of Food and Agriculture wrongly defers to federal meat inspectors to monitor slaughter practices in the state's poultry processing plants. That leaves a loophole because federal humane slaughter law does not cover poultry, the group says.
"The federal inspectors are there only because poultry is covered under the food safety laws," said Martina Bernstein, attorney for the PETA Foundation, which filed the suit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court. "The federal inspectors by law don't care if the chickens are fully conscious when their throats are slit."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also seeks to end the practice of using electrical current to stun chickens before they are killed, saying that up to a third of the birds are conscious and sensitive to pain when their throats are slit.
California initially passed a humane slaughter law that tracked the federal humane slaughter law, which applies to livestock, such as cattle and pigs. The California Legislature amended the law in 1991 to include poultry.
Attempts to add a provision for poultry to the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act or to interpret its language as applying to fowl raised for food have failed in the courts.
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One such directive requires inspectors to ensure that stunning equipment is functioning, that birds show evidence of being stunned and that poultry is not entering scalding tanks while still breathing.
PETA is not satisfied with such directives and wants the state to do its own enforcing. In addition, it argues that the prevailing method of stunning birds is not supported by science. Other methods, such as using carbon dioxide, have lower failure rates, the organization says.
The Humane Society of the United States and East Bay Animal Advocates unsuccessfully sued the federal government over the poultry loophole, arguing that the federal law's reference to "other amenable livestock species" means poultry should be included.
"There's nowhere in there where poultry is mentioned as being exempted," said Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection for the society. "It just doesn't mention them."
Current practices of poultry slaughter would violate the federal humane slaughter act, Shapiro said.
"Animal abuse is the norm in the chicken slaughter industry; it's not the exception," Shapiro said. "The method of poultry slaughter that is standard in the poultry industry in our country is so inhumane that it would be illegal if it were done to cattle or to pigs."