One major way we can reduce the suffering of animals raised for food 

Veterinarians have an opportunity to uphold medical ethics—and give the nation’s factory-farmed animals a small bit of mercy when they are killed.

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One of Europe’s biggest chicken farms is raising chickens in appalling conditions in Italy. That is the finding of a Spanish NGO Equalia who investigated this farm in 2021. This farm’s chickens, like those in other big broiler farms, are raised in huge sheds illuminated with continuous artificial light up to 24 hours a day. These chickens are constantly fed to increase their body weight until they reach market weight, usually in about six weeks. Following this period, they are put in cages, loaded onto trucks, and driven to the slaughterhouse. This farm is part of a much larger farming industry located in Italy’s northern and northeastern regions where most of the country’s chickens are slaughtered. The annual number of poultry slaughtered is second only to the number of pigs killed per year, with one company alone slaughtering over 350 million birds annually. Italy’s poultry industry is mostly vertically integrated: the same companies own the entire supply chain, from breeder flocks, hatcheries and grow-out flocks to feed production, slaughter and processing. Hundreds of family- or corporate-owned farms, slaughterhouses, and feed producers are located within a 50-kilometer range. The biggest farm reportedly has five floors with about 20,000 chickens on each floor. On these farms, chicks are usually killed after just 40 days. Many may die from disease or thirst. Their fast growth rate often causes leg problems with birds unable to support their own weight. Chicks lying on the ground in agony, unable to reach water dispenser systems is also a common sight.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is holding its annual convention in Philadelphia starting on July 29. This is an opportunity for the group to formulate a policy statement opposing a method of killing farmed animals that epitomizes the inhumane treatment of millions of birds on factory farms. The method, known as “ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+),” has become the main practice employed by the poultry and egg industries to address avian influenza outbreaks among chronically stressed and disease-prone birds.

This method “requires farmers to cut off airflow and heat their barns to 104 degrees Fahrenheit until the animals die from heatstroke,” states an article in Sentient Media. The “plus” means that, in addition to shutting down the ventilation system during VSD+, the barns are also exposed to extreme heat, humidity, and carbon dioxide (CO2) to suffocate the animals and bake them alive.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a recurring phenomenon in the poultry and egg industries. The current outbreak in the U.S., which began in February, has antecedents in 2015, 2006, and 2003. Low pathogenic avian flu outbreaks in chicken and turkey flocks are routine events involving the mass culling of millions of birds.

On July 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reported that since February, 40 million birds from 391 flocks in 37 states have had the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus. Taxpayers fund the killing of these infected birds through USDA indemnity programs like the Commodity Credit Corporation.

Understandably, most people do not envision the slaughter of thousands of birds dying together in a single facility from suffocation and heat stroke. The occasional glimpse of a truckload of dead chickens on their way to burial or a rendering plant seldom registers unless we are poultry workers, animal advocates, or investigators at an affected farm site.

This year, two separate investigations exposed the gruesome process of VSD+ and its effect on individual birds subjected to the method.

In April, the animal advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere released an investigative video showing the killing of 5 million caged hens by ventilation shutdown at Rembrandt Farms in Iowa following an outbreak of avian influenza there. Investigators found hens “being literally roasted alive—still in their cages, running loose in the facility’s industrial sheds, even buried alive.”

Also in April, the advocacy group Animal Outlook released a video based on 10 hours of footage taken by researchers at North Carolina State University of a 2016 experiment funded by the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association to study the effects of VSD+ on chickens. The footage shows hens enclosed individually in ventilation shutdown boxes with windows to observe each hen as she died. Animal Outlook attorney, Will Lowrey, who obtained the footage through public records requests, said the suffering of the hens in the boxes was “extremely profound,” according to an article in the Intercept.

These revelations have swelled the number of veterinarians and animal welfare groups urging the AVMA to stop condoning ventilation shutdown, in keeping with the Veterinarian’s Oath from AVMA’s website, to protect animal health and welfare, prevent and relieve animal suffering, and uphold the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

So far, the AVMA has equivocated by condoning the use of VSD+ “in constrained circumstances,” effectively abandoning the birds to commercial expediency. Many chickens, turkeys, and ducks have died of the avian flu virus on factory farms; millions more have been killed without evidence of infection.

Although the AVMA cannot mandate or prohibit any method for euthanizing farmed animals, the AVMA’s recommendation against a particular procedure carries industry weight. We believe the AVMA has a moral responsibility toward these trapped and helpless animals, and that this responsibility should transcend an accommodation of commercial priorities.

With guaranteed government indemnities to the industries added to the AVMA’s current approval of VSD+, poultry and egg producers and their trade groups have no incentive to mitigate the squalor and debilitate breeding practices that enable flu viruses to spread among the thousands of birds crammed together in the mammoth industrialized sheds.

In “Prevention of Avian Influenza at Its Animal Source,” the World Organization for Animal Health observes that “good hygiene practices are essential to prevent avian influenza outbreaks, because of the resistance of the virus in the environment and its highly contagious nature.” In reality, industrialized animal farms cannot, by their very nature, be hygienic, although hygienic practices could be vastly improved. As of now, avian influenza epidemics are built into the heavily subsidized poultry industry with no accountability. These epidemics will continue if no action is taken, especially by the organization that has sworn to protect animals from preventable suffering.

Accordingly, we are urging the AVMA to oppose ventilation shutdown and ventilation shutdown plus. This should be a priority topic at the AVMA’s convention in Philadelphia, with a tangible moral result.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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