The stench precedes the arrival of the tractor trailer as it pulls up to the curb outside the nondescript one-story building on East Charleston Avenue on a June day in Las Vegas. Animal activists, who have been waiting on the sidewalk since before dawn, surround the truck, cameras in hand, to document conditions in the crowded cages.
“Be careful, there’s poop and debris,” Camille Savage of Las Vegas Animal Save warns the activists. Excrement falls from the stacked cages to the pavement as the truck rolls to a stop.
Chickens cluck and ducks quack as the sun rises on what is likely their last day. In a matter of hours, the four-to-six week old birds will be slaughtered here at Charleston Poultry, or at its sister company Highland Poultry, on Procyon near Chinatown. The two locations serve the companies’ customer base, which is 70% Hispanic and 30% Asian, according to owner David Lee.
The activists show up once a month to bear witness to what they say is the needless suffering of the birds.
“I’ve seen the truck crash. Cages got knocked loose and animals came flying out. I’ve seen chickens run over by forklifts. We’ve seen all sorts of awful things,” says animal advocate Jill Kerner. “The frustrating thing is that none of that seems to matter to workers, to the owners or to customers because it’s so easily hidden and not discussed. It’s swept under the rug and considered business as usual.”
Kerner acknowledges the evolution of human eating habits moves at a snail’s pace.
“You can’t force people to change what they eat,” she says. “This is about planting seeds.”
The sun beats down on the unprotected cages. The birds, dozens crammed into a single cage, have had no water for at least the last ten hours during their journey from Pitman Family Farms near Fresno, California.
Some of the birds appear to be sick, their eyes closed and encrusted. Others are injured, their wings bloodied from being stuck in the cage. A dead chicken hangs from the side of the truck after attempting to escape between bent bars.
Poultry, unlike most farmed animals, lack even basic welfare protections.
“These places are under the radar,” says Savage, who thinks the regulatory agencies work together to protect the industry. “It has been an uphill battle trying to get any type of exposure for these individuals.”
The USDA, under pressure from activists, has urged slaughterhouses to comply with Good Commercial Practice guidelines, but they are voluntary. The guidelines require birds to be protected from the elements, for cages to be in good condition, and prohibits loose birds from wandering the receiving area. The Current observed breaches of all three at Highland Poultry.
A representative of Pitman Family Farms, which breeds the birds and owns the cages used to transport them to Las Vegas, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Animal transport in the U.S. is regulated by just one federal law enacted in 1873, which says livestock must be unloaded, rested for five hours and given food and water if the journey is longer than 28 hours. It does not cover birds.
An investigation last month by the Guardian revealed tens of millions of farm animals in the U.S. are dying before they can be slaughtered because of the “deadly conditions under which animals are transported around the country.”
“Approximately 20 million chickens, 330,000 pigs and 166,000 cattle are dead on arrival, or soon after, at abattoirs in the US every year, analysis of publicly available data shows. A further 800,000 pigs are calculated to be unable to walk on arrival,” Guardian reported.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture says interstate transport of poultry is regulated by the USDA. The USDA told the Current it’s regulated by the state. There are no applicable state regulations for transporting chickens. In short, the transport of poultry to Nevada is unregulated.
“We do have the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), a voluntary program which also has specific requirements for transferring poultry, however, not every poultry producer is a member of NPIP,” the USDA said via email, adding it’s up to the states to regulate transporting the birds. “Some states have extensive rules/regulations/requirements for importing poultry, whereas other states do not.”
D is for Duck
The birds that meet their end in Las Vegas arrive weekly from the same farm that breeds Mary’s Chickens, advertised as free-range and organic, and sold at Whole Foods markets in Las Vegas at a premium to consumers who increasingly demand better conditions for poultry and livestock and more humane methods of slaughter.
Animal welfare activists contend the concept of “humanely processed meat” is an oxymoron, adding that efforts to portray the brief existence of factory-farmed animals as a walk in a pasture is nothing more than humane-washing, a sales tactic in which products feature images of free-roaming animals.
“We are taught from birth to embrace animals,” protestor Sean Williams said as his young sons, who are being raised vegan, frolicked outside Highland Poultry. “From Chicken Little to Finding Nemo, children’s classics are packed with anthropomorphic portrayals of animals we love and root for when they get in these harrowing situations. Then we get into real life.”
Exposing consumers to the reality of meat, dairy, and egg production hurts business, activists suggest.
“Most people who live in the city and who are raised to eat all these animals don’t give it one second of thought, so we think it’s important to bring that reflection back to the real victims within these industries, which are the animals and the workers,” says Kerner, who has struck up conversations over the years with a slaughterhouse employee. She says the employee makes $10 an hour at Highland Poultry, which is his second job. “He doesn’t eat meat.”
Pitman Farm, which breeds the chickens sold at the two Las Vegas slaughter facilities, says on its website that it processes “all our chicken using a multistep controlled-atmosphere processing system,” in which the animals are stunned with an infusion of carbon dioxide or argon gas before having their throats cut. The “gentle technology” provides a “less stressful experience, contributing to improved animal welfare, better processing conditions and higher quality meat.”
In actuality, the chickens transported to Las Vegas from Pitman Farms meet their end by the conventional method in the U.S., which involves electrical stunning.
“While gas has achieved limited usage in Europe, very few chicken plants in the United States use gas systems,” says the National Chicken Council.
The NCC cites “considerable debate” about the desirability of gas stunning.
“Gas systems have to be selected and operated very carefully to avoid undesirable experiences. … Birds subjected to various mixtures of carbon dioxide and argon, the gases most commonly recommended for stunning, will gasp for air and may exhibit behaviors indicating aversion to the gas, including headshaking, wing flapping and convulsions.”
“With electric immobilization—the conventional poultry slaughter method in the U.S.—live birds are dumped out of crates and forced into shackles by workers, are immobilized by an electrically charged water bath, have their throats slit by a “killing” machine, and are scalded to death in defeathering tanks,” says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“Electrical stunning has been considered to be humane because it protects the birds from pain at the time of slaughter,” says the NCC, and “renders the bird insensible to pain.”
Acclaimed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has endorsed the gas method as more humane than electrical stunning.
The activists contend there is no kind way to end the life of a being that doesn’t want to die.
The federal Humane Slaughter Act excludes poultry. By law, federal inspectors, to whom state regulators often defer, are concerned only with food safety, and not the welfare of the birds.
“The USDA should promulgate regulations requiring humane handling of birds to decrease the adulteration of poultry products. Such regulations should address worker training, holding times, conditions in holding areas, maintenance of transport crates, removal of birds from crates, shackling of birds, treatment of sick and injured birds, and measures to prevent live birds from entering the scald tank,” says a report from the Animal Welfare Institute.
According to the USDA, in 2019, 9.3 billion chickens, 228 million turkeys, and 28 million ducks were slaughtered in the United States under federal inspection.
Highland Poultry and Charleston Poultry are exempt from USDA inspection requirements that an inspector be present when slaughtering and processing take place. Instead, they are inspected by the state, which requires one inspection a year.
The exemption generally applies to facilities that slaughter their own birds, or under 20,000 birds a year. Savage of LV Animal Save estimates the number of birds arriving at the two Las Vegas slaughterhouses combined at more than 50,000 a year.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) took over slaughter facility inspections from the state Health Department in 2015. It regulates a poultry slaughterhouse in Fallon and another in Lamoille, in addition to the two in Las Vegas.
Inspection reports obtained by the Current reveal a litany of violations at both Las Vegas slaughterhouses.
“Facility has an increase of flies. Sticky paper is OK as long as changed frequently so no build up,” state inspector Erica Ryan wrote on Oct. 5, 2017 of Highland Poultry. “Physical facilities installed, maintained, and clean – No.”
A complaint and photos from activists provided to the state Department of Agriculture on Aug. 1, 2018 alleged the birds arriving at Highland Poultry from California that week appeared sick. The interstate transport of diseased animals and poultry is “generally prohibited” under federal regulations.
Ryan, the state inspector who investigated the allegations, wrote in an email to the USDA that she is “not trained in chicken health,” but “didn’t see anything particularly out of the ordinary.”
“Our regional USDA expert advises that the photos appear to show respiratory distress symptomology consistent with virulent Newcastle Disease (vND) in poultry,” USDA inspector Alexander Turner responded, noting an outbreak at the time of the disease in California and quarantine of affected birds. The birds pose no food safety risk, according to USDA, “but possible public health risk to humans working directly with the birds…”
The USDA never investigated the condition of the birds.
“After receiving the complaint in August 2018, FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Services) notified USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the regulatory agency with oversight of animal diseases,” said a spokeswoman for FSIS.
“APHIS did not conduct an investigation and since FSIS is the agency that mentioned an investigation, we recommend you contact them for additional information,” a spokesperson for APHIS responded.
The Los Angeles Times reported in June 2019 that more than 1.2 million birds had been euthanized since the outbreak began in May 2018.
Ryan’s inspection noted the facility is “not clean,” adding “doors, windows and other openings not protected to eliminate entry by insects, rodents and other pests. …Plumbing is not maintained to prevent contamination.”
An inspection report a year later, from August 2019 notes:
- “Open door allows ingress of pests,” (repeat violation)
- A photo of processed chickens in plastic bags that are “improperly identified and out of temp”
- A photo of a worker with processed chickens that are “Improperly identified birds”
- “Feathers not frequently disposed of”
- “Exposed insulation in processing room”
- “No backflow prevention devices” (repeat)
- “Filthy, improperly stored equipment”
- “Evidence of pests in processing area” (Repeat)
- “No toilet paper in bathroom”
- “Damaged door where birds are stored”
- “Dirty walls and ceiling”
“Although the business has made steps to correct previously noted violations, the overall cleanliness of the facility was still sub-standard,” federal inspector Turner wrote during a follow-up inspection. He also questioned whether Highland Poultry qualifies for exemption from federal regulation and wrote “a routine audit of his financial documents will assess if Highland meets the USDA’s Poultry Retail Exemption criteria.”
The results of the audit are not public record, but Lee, the owner of the slaughterhouses, says he can’t afford to switch to USDA regulation, which would allow him to sell poultry and waterfowl to restaurants and stores, but require him to give up his retail operation, he says.
Inspections of slaughterhouses, other than regular annual events, are largely complaint driven. A video taken by LV Animal Save and provided to the state of live chickens being put into a car at Highland Poultry has not been investigated for lack of a complaint. The state confirmed the facility is not permitted to sell live birds.
“We have not sold any live chicken to anyone,” Lee said. He was unable to explain the video.
Even as some other meats fall out of favor with consumers, poultry sales remain strong.
Americans consumed 111.1 lbs. of red meat per capita in 2021, down from 133 lbs in 1960.
Poultry consumption per capita has more than tripled in that same time, from 34.2 lbs to 113.8 lbs last year, according to the National Chicken Council.
But an NCC survey in 2018 found three of four respondents were concerned about how chickens are raised for meat, and about the same percentage said they were concerned about breeding practices designed to optimize meat production.
“Consumers are significantly more concerned this year about chicken purchase considerations than in any other year,” said a report commissioned by the NCC in 2018. “Consumers continue to purchase chicken over other proteins because it is versatile and convenient. However, fewer are purchasing chicken because it is healthy. Nearly half are purchasing plant-based proteins as an alternative primarily because it is seen as healthy.”
Poultry farming is tough on the environment.
It takes 83.1 gallons of water, 9 feet of habitat loss, and more than half a pound of manure to produce a five ounce chicken breast, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Not to mention the 2.15 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted as a result. That amounts to more than 400 lbs of CO2 emitted a year for every American, based on consumption data.
Lee says he doesn’t worry about market shrinkage.
“There’s going to be a demand. If it shrinks, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I have a dentist. I have a surgeon. I have a medical doctor in my family. My children make me proud. But I had to do what it takes to raise them.”
He says the activists have tried to get him to close his business.
“I cannot do that. We have a simple background and a small business. It’s not like I’m doing this to get rich,” Lee says. “But if I don’t do this, I wouldn’t know what I would be doing.”
Williams, the activist who brings his children along to the vigils, says he often wonders whether he and the others are wasting their time and fighting a losing battle.
“Like this morning. I got up at like 4am and I’m like, ‘is this really what I want to do with my morning?’ And then I stand out here and one car goes by and I hold up a sign and if it makes somebody think twice, that’s enough for me.”