This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.
There are lots of wonderful, delicious ways to cook a chicken, but usually when you do, the chicken isn't alive. Unless you're the United States Department of Agriculture. This fall, the USDA approved a controversial method for euthanizing thousands of sick chickens and turkeys at once called ventilation shutdown. Essentially, the air systems in a chicken house are shut off, and the birds slowly overheat and die. The process "bakes the birds to death over a period of time which can last hours and involves intense suffering," according to a release from the Humane Society of the United States.
Why would anyone want to kill thousands of birds in such a gruesome manner? Earlier this year, avian flu decimated poultry farms across the US. Once a bird is infected, the disease quickly spreads to the whole flock, sentencing them all to a near-inevitable death. Worse, it heightens the risk that the virus will spread to other farms on the clothing of workers, on equipment, or in egg crates. The cold weather brings a risk of a second wave of the virus, and ventilation shutdown is one method for making sure infected flocks are all killed within 24 hours after the virus is detected, in an attempt to stop the spread.
But the Humane Society and other animal rights groups say the grisly death sentence isn't necessary: Birds can be euthanized reasonably quickly using a suffocating foam that, while still not the nicest way to do the job, gets it done in a few seconds. The trouble is that the foam has to cover every bird entirely in order to work, and in massive factory farms where birds are stacked up to the ceiling in cages, that's no easy feat. The USDA says ventilation shutdown will be used only if absolutely necessary, but that's cold comfort for those who'd prefer chickens to be already dead before we stick them in an oven.