Turkey slaughter lawsuit won’t fly, judges rule


The millions of turkeys headed to the slaughterhouse and into the oven this Thanksgiving will receive no additional reprieve from the law.

A subheadline on an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a federal appeals panel ruled that the Humane Society had no grounds to sue the USDA for asserting that a 1958 congressional act mandating humane slaughter does not extend to poultry. The appeals panel said the society has no standing to sue.

Ruling on a four-year legal battle over the regulation of poultry slaughter, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week threw out a lawsuit challenging the government’s position that a half-century-old congressional act on humane slaughter does not extend to animals of the feathered kind.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco three days before Thanksgiving 2005 by the Humane Society of the United States, contended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s position leads to shoddy slaughter practices and jeopardizes food safety. It was sparked by a 2005 USDA notice that “there is no specific federal humane handling and slaughter statute for poultry.”

The plaintiffs contended that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 -- which requires that “cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine and other livestock” be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter -- should be read to include poultry.

Attorneys for the USDA accused the plaintiffs of attempting “revisionist history,” saying that without taking into account Congress’ intent, the phrase “other livestock” could be read to include “fish, ants, guinea pigs, cats or dogs bred for sale, bees.”

After hearing oral arguments the week of Thanksgiving 2007, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled in favor of the USDA, saying lawmakers’ intent to leave poultry out was clear.

In the decision entered Friday, a three-judge panel decided that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue in the first place. Judge George H. Wu wrote that a legal ruling on the meaning of the act would not have any effect on poultry slaughter practices because it is dependent on “a number of political and legal factors quite independent from this court’s determination.”

The appellate court vacated Hall Patel’s ruling and sent the case back to the lower court to be dismissed.

Jonathan Lovvorn, an attorney for the Humane Society, said the decision left the issue open for action by the USDA or Congress. His organization has not decided whether to appeal the decision, he said.

In the lawsuit, the Humane Society alleged that without legal protection, poultry is subject to “extreme and unnecessary pain and suffering.”

The process of stunning birds in a tub of water charged with electricity can be painful if their wings touch the water before their heads are fully immersed, particularly in the case of turkeys because of their larger wingspan, the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. Sometimes the electric charge isn’t enough to knock them out completely before slaughter, and some birds miss the bath completely, they contended.

Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, called the lawsuit “unnecessarily distracting,” saying electric stunning methods have been shown to be highly effective. The industry is already in compliance with the “spirit” of the humane slaughter act even if it does not apply to poultry producers, he said.

“They’re trying to create an issue where there is none,” he said. “They’re out trying to create a false impression of what’s going on in the industry.”