More than 10 million hens are estimated to have been culled due to COVID-19-related slaughterhouse shutdowns.
The majority would have been smothered by a water-based foam, similar to fire-fighting foam, a method that animal welfare groups are calling “inhumane.”
The pork industry has warned that more than 10 million pigs could be culled by September for the same reason. The techniques used to cull pigs include gassing, shooting, anesthetic overdose or blunt force trauma.
In “constrained circumstances,” techniques might also include a combination of shutting down pig barn ventilator systems with the addition of carbon dioxide so the animals suffocate, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) guidelines for depopulation.
The depopulation comes despite food banks across the US reporting unprecedented demand and widespread hunger during the pandemic, with 10km queues for aid forming at some newly set up distribution centers.
The US meat supply chain has been hit hard by the closure of slaughterhouses, due to COVID-19 infection rates among workers.
Thirty to 40 plants have closed, which means that in the highly consolidated US system beef and pork slaughtering capacities have been cut by 25 percent and 40 percent respectively, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The closures have meant that animals cannot be killed for food and many must instead be culled or depopulated at farms.
As it is comparatively easier to keep cattle on farms, cow culls do not appear to be an issue as yet, and the chicken cull might have peaked, IHS Markit agribusiness analyst Adam Speck said.
“[Cattle] could stay on ranches another six months if necessary. The peak of the chicken cull has passed for now. North of about 10 million chickens were depopulated, either at the chick or egg stage,” Speck said.
At the hen stage it is hard to be sure of the numbers, Mercy for Animals president Leah Garces said.
“What we know with certainty is that 2 million meat chickens [and] 61,000 laying hens” have been killed on farms, Garces added.
Compared with poultry, stopping or slowing the production cycle of pigs is harder, mainly because pig growing periods are about six months compared to six weeks for hens, she said, adding that “pregnancies had already been set in motion when the slaughterhouse closures occurred” and pigs were already in the system.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has estimated that “up to 10,069,000 market hogs would need to be euthanized between the weeks ending on April 25 and Sept. 19, resulting in a severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers.”
For pig culls, AVMA “preferred methods” include injectable anesthetic overdose, gassing, shooting with guns or bolts, electrocution and manual blunt force trauma.
AVMA methods “permitted in constrained circumstances” include ventilator shutdowns, potentially combined with carbon dioxide gassing, and sodium nitrite, which would be ingested by pigs.
Speaking more graphically, Garces said that manual blunt force trauma can mean slamming piglets against the ground while ventilator shutdowns would “essentially cook the pigs alive.”
Asked to estimate numbers of pigs that have already been culled, Speck said that producers are very reluctant to depopulate.
“About 2 million might have been culled so far due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the last six or so weeks,” Garces said.
According to Speck, slaughterhouses would likely to return to 85 percent capacity by the end of this month, and the NPPC’s depopulation estimate of 10 million pigs could be significantly reduced.
Breeders are thinning herds and slowing growth to reduce pig supply, Speck said.
“They are sending breeding sows to slaughter, aborting pregnant sows on a small scale and [keeping market-bound pigs] on maintenance style rations with less protein,” Speck said.
“Coming into the summer months the pigs would also gain weight more slowly as the weather heats up,” he added.
Asked about growth slowdown, Garces said that it posed other welfare risks.
“One method to slow down growth is to turn the heat up inside of the warehouses beyond the pigs comfort zone because pigs eat less when they are too hot,” Garces said.
The combination of feed restrictions and higher barn temperatures mean pigs are “hungry and hot, increasing their overall discomfort, which is already high in a factory farm setting,” Garces added.
In what appears to be an attempt by the industry to reduce any negative depopulation impact, a blog managed by the National Pork Board called Real Pig Farming offers social media sharing tips for farmers.
The blog recommends farmers to “think twice before engaging with posts that show what may be happening on farms right now.”
“Most people do not understand the complexity of raising pigs and getting pork from the farm to their table. That means, a good rule of thumb is to speak to a level a third grader [eight to 10 years old] would understand to ensure that things are not taken out of context,” a blog post said.
NPPC spokesperson Jim Monroe said that by the end of last week, less than 25 percent of overall slaughter capacity was idled and the situation was improving.
“[The] tragic need to euthanize animals is to prevent animal suffering,” Monroe said.
For poultry, culling options are no easier.
Filling sheds with carbon dioxide gas is one method, said Kim Sturla, director of Animal Place, an animal welfare organization.
Another cull method is to smother hens with water-based foam, similar to firefighting foam, she said. Water-based foaming is categorized as the preferred method by the AVMA.
Previously asked about water-based foaming and other cull methods such as ventilator shutdowns, an AVMA spokesperson said depopulation decisions were difficult and “contingent upon several factors, such as the species and number of animals involved, available means of animal restraint, safety of personnel, and other considerations such as availability of equipment, agents and personnel.”
Firefighting foam causes prolonged suffering, said Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare group.
Although risks of similar livestock culls appear low in Europe so far, using foam that contains nitrogen gas is advised because death is faster, the group said.
A report in the European Food Safety Authority Journal last year said it did not find water-based or firefighting foam acceptable, as “death due to drowning in fluids or suffocation by occlusion of the airways” is not seen as “a humane method for killing animals, including poultry.”
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