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Over the last few years, millions of chickens and pigs have been locked inside barns and effectively baked alive in a process known as “depopulation.” While we’re accustomed to seeing agribusiness acting callously toward animals on its factory farms, seeing the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)—which represents the majority of America’s veterinarians—playing a supporting role in preserving this heinous form of cruelty is incomprehensible. Despite being able to help prevent this practice on farms across the country by strengthening its guidelines, the nation’s largest veterinary membership group is standing back and signing off on brutal business as usual.
Why is this cruelty happening in the first place? The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted the industrial meat production industry, leading to slaughter plant closings and an unprecedented backlog of animals on the factory farms that dominate our food system. These facilities—which were already packing in as many animals as they could to drive record profits for large companies—were unprepared to house and feed animals past their slaughter dates.
In response, farmers were forced to kill tens of thousands of animals at a time, and many defaulted to a depopulation practice called “Ventilation Shutdown plus heat,” or VSD+. This involves sealing animals inside a barn, cutting off airflow, and raising the heat, often with steam added, to temperatures as extreme as 170°F. The animals inside slowly suffocate or die of heat stress over extended periods of time.
The AVMA’s current depopulation guidelines—which haven’t been updated since 2019 and are generally relied on by meat industry protocols—include the use of VSD+ in “constrained circumstances” for pigs and indoor-raised birds like chickens and turkeys during extraordinary conditions of urgency, such as animal illnesses or zoonotic disease outbreaks. But make no mistake: VSD+ is brutal under any circumstances. This effective endorsement of VSD+ due to slaughter bottlenecking is unethical and inconsistent. The AVMA opposes leaving a pet in a hot car with the windows closed and the heater on and should oppose the same treatment of pigs and birds. Cruelty is cruelty.
Even when it became apparent that VSD+ was being widely used outside of the AVMA’s own “constrained circumstances” guidelines, the veterinary group declined to reclassify VSD methods as “not recommended.”
When videos emerged of animals enduring agonizing deaths on farms and in laboratories where the grisly process was tested, veterinary professionals called on the AVMA to take action. But the trade group remained silent, even denying some veterinarians admission to its latest conference because of their opposition to VSD+.
With AVMA refusing to press Big Ag to invest in more humane methods, millions more animals across the country will endure this torturous form of killing in response to the ongoing massive avian flu outbreak.
Every day, veterinarians across the country live up to their professional oath to use “scientific knowledge” for the “prevention and relief of animal suffering.” That oath applies to this situation directly. A recent AVMA-published study found that it takes, on average, nearly an hour for baby pigs to die by VSD+, and even longer for older pigs. By condoning this killing method, the AVMA violates its members’ values and jeopardizes the reputation of the veterinary industry.
In the worldwide community of veterinary and public health organizations, the AVMA stands mostly alone on this issue. The World Organization for Animal Health, an intergovernmental body that promotes animal well-being worldwide, does not condone ventilation shutdown in any situation, including when a disease outbreak needs to be controlled. The European Food Safety Authority also disapproves of the process, calling it “highly painful” for animals and recommending it never be used.
Recently, advocates have turned to federal legislation to address the growing crisis of cruel depopulation. The 2023 Farm Bill provides a powerful opportunity to advance new protections for farm animals by including measures like the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act, which would restrict the use of the most egregious forms of depopulation, like VSD with heat, and require agribusinesses to better prepare for disasters and emergencies to prevent the large-scale killing of millions of animals altogether.
Unfortunately, millions of animals can’t wait for Congress to pass more humane laws. Agribusiness is justifying its inhumane practices by citing the AVMA’s guidelines, so we urge the AVMA to act quickly—in alignment with its own mission and core values—to help end this horrendous form of animal cruelty.
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