Analysis: Humane Methods of Poultry Slaughter Lawsuit Dismissed
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Karen Davis, PhD, United Poultry Concerns (UPC)
February 2010

“Circuit hears arguments in humane slaughter case,” Feedstuffs, Oct. 12, 2009, p. 4:

Attorneys argued before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week in a lawsuit the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) brought against the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

The act, adopted by Congress in 1958, covers livestock but specifically excludes poultry, which Congress determined are not considered livestock for the purposes of the act.

HSUS contends that at the time of the act’s adoption, the dictionary defined livestock as “useful” farm animals and that poultry, therefore, should be covered as they are useful farm animals.

However, a district court disagreed on the grounds that the act distinguished between livestock and poultry and wrote the law to apply only to livestock. The court then granted USDA’s request for summary judgment and dismissed the case.

HSUS subsequently appealed to the ninth circuit, which conducted a hearing on the case Oct. 7.

“Slaughter act suit cannot be pursued,” Feedstuffs, Jan. 4, 2010, p. 2:

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco Cal., ruled that the Humane Society of the United States does not have standing to pursue its lawsuit seeking to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include poultry in the 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which only refers to “livestock.” The circuit said the humane society could not show that the alleged “injuries” to poultry by continued omission from the act’s authority would be redressed by a favorable ruling and handed the case back to the district court to be dismissed.

Background: The Federal Level:

Poultry are excluded from the 1958 Federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, even thought the eight bills presented at the 1957 Hearings before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock and Feed Grains included livestock and poultry. Those working to enact some form of humane slaughter legislation at the time omitted poultry under pressure with the understanding that birds would subsequently be brought under the protective coverage accorded to mammals.

In the 1990s, three bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Andrew Jacobs of Indiana - H.R. 4124 (1992); H.R. 649 (1993); and H.R. 264 (1995). They sought to amend the 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act to provide for the “humane” slaughter of poultry similar to how the 1906 Meat Inspection Act was used as a basis for determining the coverage of “cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules, and other equines” under the 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. However, all of these bills died in the House Agricultural Livestock Subcommittee to which they were referred.

On September 28, 1994, House Subcommittee Chairman Harold Volkmer, of Missouri, held a hearing on H.R. 649, the “Humane Methods of Poultry Slaughter Act.” United Poultry Concerns, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Animal Welfare Institute presented oral and written testimony on behalf of this bill. However, Rep. Volkmer announced his opposition to the bill at the outset and made jokes about killing chickens on the farm during the hearing.

Frustrated by government, several animal protection organizations petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on November 21, 1995, to use its statutory authority to extend humane slaughter protection to poultry through an amendment of the poultry products inspection regulations issued under the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Petition for Rulemaking Regarding Regulations Issued Under the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), 21, U.S.C. Sec. 451, et seq. was submitted to the Department of Agriculture on November 21, 1995 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, AWI’s legislative arm. If the petition had been granted, USDA inspection regulations for poultry would have included a provision for the “humane” slaughter of poultry, similar to inspection regulations covering the “humane” slaughter of most mammals killed for food in the United States. The petition wasn’t granted.

Ten years later to the day, in light of investigations documenting extreme cruelty to birds in slaughter plants in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Maryland, The Humane Society of the United States and the California-based East Bay Animal Advocates sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on November 21, 2005. The suit, filed in federal district court in San Francisco, challenged the exclusion of poultry from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and sought to ensure that birds are unconscious before being slaughtered. The lawsuit stated that poultry plants hang live birds injuriously in metal shackles and subject them to paralyzing electric shocks before cutting their necks and dumping them into tanks of scalding, feces-contaminated water while they are still alive (Evans & Page; Williamson).

However, in 2008, U.S. District Court judge Marilyn Hall Patel dismissed the lawsuit, stating that the language of previous bills indicated that Congress “intended to exclude poultry from the definition of livestock when it enacted H.R. 8308,” the bill that became the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1958 (FAW 2008).

For an idea of what birds are up against in the United States, in 2005 USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published a notice in the Federal Register on “Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter” (USDA-FSIS). Noting that it had received over 20,000 letters from members of the public concerned about humane treatment of livestock, including 13,000 emails supporting legislation to include provisions for the humane treatment of poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the agency invited public comment. United Poultry Concerns submitted comment on October 25th (UPC 2005). On June 25, 2007, UPC president Karen Davis phoned FSIS for a status report on the notice and was told by Director of Regulatory Staff, Rachel Edelstein, that it was “just a reminder.” There was, and is, no plan to change existing regulations, she said.

It is inexcusable that the huge majority of land animals slaughtered for human consumption in this country are denied “humane slaughter” coverage. Cruelty prosecutions are impossible under these circumstances. The U.S. government and the poultry industry have no accountability regarding their treatment of the billions of birds they handle and kill while the birds are alive and capable of experiencing what is being done to them. The effort to extend coverage should not be regarded as a sanction for slaughter or a salve for conscience. Rather, the absence of a law conveys the false notion to the general public, and to those who work directly with poultry, that these birds do not suffer, or that their suffering does not matter, and that humans have no merciful obligation to them even to the nominal extent granted to cattle, sheep, and pigs.


Evans & Page. 2005. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division. Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, 21 November.
FAW (Farmed Animal Watch). 2008. Poultry Ruled Not “Livestock,” 7 March.

UPC. 2005. Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter 25 October.

USDA-FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service). 2005. Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter. Docket No. 04-037N. Federal Register Notice, 28 September.

Williamson, Elizabeth. 2005. Humane Society to Sue Over Poultry Slaughtering: Suit Demands That Birds Be Killed or Rendered Unconscious Before Butchering. The Washington Post 21 November: B2.

Background information from the 1990s through 2007 appears in Karen Davis. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry.

On September 28, 1994, UPC president Karen Davis presented oral and written testimony before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, chaired by Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, on behalf of H.R. 649, the Humane Methods of Poultry Slaughter Act of 1993, introduced by Rep. Andrew Jacobs, Jr., of Indiana. That testimony cited the eight bills presented in 1957 which sought to include livestock and poultry in a federal humane methods of slaughter law.

On April 2 and 12, 1957, Hearings were held before the Subcommittee on Livestock and Feed Grains of the Committee on Agriculture House of Representatives Eighty-Fifth Congress First Session, on H.R. 176, H.R. 2880, H.R. 3029, H.R. 3049, H.R. 5671, H.R. 5820, H.R. 6422, and H.R. 6509. These bills sought “To require the use of humane methods in the slaughter of livestock and poultry in interstate or foreign commerce, and for other purposes.”

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