The supply chain crisis that led to the implementation of ventilation shutdown was, in a sense, inevitable, given the structure of modern animal agriculture. Meatpacking is a classic economy of scale; large players are able to drive down their per-unit costs to such a degree that they can squeeze out smaller players, increasing their market share. Over the course of decades, the animal slaughter industry has become one of the most highly concentrated industries in the world. Eighty-five percent of beef packing in the United States is controlled by just four companies. In pork processing, 67% is controlled by the four largest firms; the number is 54% for chicken. Out of all of the high-volume pig slaughter in the country, nearly 90% of it is carried out by fewer than 30 slaughterhouses, each of which kill more than 1 million pigs per year.
That means that even a single one of those slaughterhouses coming offline can create a massive bottleneck across the industry. And in 2020, slaughter capacity was reduced by half, resulting in a supply chain backup of epic proportions. For consumers, that backup resulted in skyrocketing prices for meat. For the animals themselves, it resulted in what the industry deceptively calls “euthanasia,” but that is, in fact, in many cases an excruciatingly slow and torturous death.
In the aftermath of that crisis, the Biden administration has pledged to break up this hyperconcentration through antitrust enforcement, which could help control prices for consumers, create a fairer market for ranchers and livestock farmers and bring resilience to the supply chain in the event of another major disruption. A bill from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Ro Khanna, meanwhile, was recently introduced that would extend protections to meatpacking workers.
But for animals, there’s no relief on the horizon. Dr. Crystal Heath is a Berkeley-based veterinarian and a member of DxE (I count her, too, as a friend) who wants to make sure ventilation shutdown, or VSD, is never used again in future supply chain crises. She helped circulate an online petition under the name “Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown,” which calls on the American Veterinary Medical Association to classify the practice as “not recommended.” She has about 3,500 veterinary professionals signed on, out of which about 1,500 are licensed veterinarians.
The request seems modest enough. But when the petition was submitted to the same effect to the AVMA House of Delegates, one delegate said that VSD needed to remain an option for the animal agriculture industry, in the likely event of another pandemic. Dr. Heath is worried that AVMA is setting the stage for allowing VSD to go forward in the future, in the event of another major supply chain disruption.
The AVMA’s scientific journal is the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, or JAVMA. “JAVMA publishes stuff that’s nothing but supportive of VSD,” Dr. Heath said. “They’re saying we’re going to have to use it again, like it or not.”
JAVMA published the paper that described the results of the converted trailer experiment, and essentially endorsed the method. Responding to two letters to the editor in JAVMA that were critical of the practice, the researchers who conducted the converted trailer experiment accused their critics of putting veterinarians’ lives at risk. The researchers warned that “criticism from peers may have unintended negative effects on our colleagues,” referred to the “mental health crisis” within the profession and suggested that those who were advocating ending VSD might drive the veterinarians who helped implement it to suicide.
The status quo has persisted for slaughterhouse workers, as well. To date, an estimated 86,000 workers have caught COVID-19 and at least 423 have lost their lives to it. Today, fewer workers are getting sick because of the vaccines, but one poultry worker told me that at her plant, managers had learned from the pandemic that they can keep up the same pace of production with fewer workers. They never bothered hiring new staff to replace the workers they’d lost to COVID; they’re just pushing the remaining workers even harder. That’s led to fatigue and injury, which is a hazard to workers and animals alike. Whenever workers are pushed to the brink, animal welfare suffers too, as tired workers means less focused workers, and that can mean animals not being fully killed before they get through the kill line, which means they’re eviscerated while still alive.
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