Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 26, 2020


Mike Andrade-Heymsfield, Animal Legal Defense Fund, (707) 364-8387,
Hannah Connor, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 681-1676,

Emergency Legal Petition Filed With USDA to End Cruel Farm ‘Depopulation’ Methods

WASHINGTON— A coalition led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed an emergency petition today with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent COVID-19 relief funds, resources and any other forms of support from facilitating or compensating for the costs of ventilation shutdown or water-based foam “depopulation” — the mass killing of animals on factory farms. It also asks the agency to withhold COVID-19 relief funds, resources, and any other forms of support from integrators, processors, and meatpackers that order or permit ventilation shutdown or water-based foam depopulation.

Ventilation shut down is executed by shutting off all fans and closing vents to create an airtight environment while animals suffocate and are baked alive in rising temperatures over multiple hours. In some circumstances, steam is also pumped into the barns to speed the process. Water-based foam depopulation, typically used to kill birds, is executed by filling a barn with shaving cream consistency foam to cover the animals, resulting in suffocation over an estimated 15-minute period.

COVID-19 has sickened thousands of slaughterhouse workers across the country, which has forced many slaughterhouses to shut down for periods of time and slow their processing rates, resulting in a backup of millions of animals on factory farms. This backlog leads to the mass killing of animals because, in an effort to maximize profits, the industry’s business model leaves no room to accommodate delays in the supply chain. This “just-in-time” model means new herds and flocks are scheduled to arrive at farms just in time to replace those that have reached slaughter weight and are being trucked to one of very few slaughterhouses.

“Some of the cruelest depopulation methods, like using ventilation shutdown — which was recently revealed by a worker to have occurred at Iowa Select Farms — can leave animals suffering for many hours before they suffocate or are cooked alive,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “We’re taking this initial action urging the USDA to prevent these extreme measures.”

The petition also requests that the USDA create affirmative and enforceable standards for depopulation and for the agency to establish an online database of animal agriculture industry recipients of COVID-19 relief.

Depopulation as a result of COVID-19 is likely to continue. Slaughterhouses are backed up for months, and current corporate and government policies — which force workers to stand close together on slaughter lines while also speeding up those lines — make it more likely that the virus will continue to rage in these facilities, causing more temporary closures, supply-chain disruptions, and gruesome depopulations, all culminating in the animal agriculture industry turning to the USDA for monetary relief for a problem of its own making.

To address this untenable situation, the coalition is proposing a solution that incentivizes responsible, forward-thinking policies to avoid some of the cruelest outcomes for animals. The coalition includes the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Equality, Animal Outlook, Animal Place, Association of Irritated Residents, Center for Biological Diversity, Compassion in World Farming, Farm Forward, Farm Sanctuary, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, PETA, The Humane League, Woodstock Sanctuary and World Animal Protection

“It’d be shocking to the public conscience to learn of the double whammy here: big animal agribusiness uses barbaric practices like 'ventilation shutdown' – which is industry speak for intentionally entombing live animals by the thousands in an airless box by turning off the air flow system and increasing the heat to excruciating but not immediately lethal temperatures, keeping the animals alive but suffering for many hours – simply because the animals are losing their market value due to a brittle and centralized business model, and the USDA pays 'relief' to subsidize these practices,” said Cheryl Leahy, executive vice president at Animal Outlook. “Is this what we want our tax dollars supporting during this pandemic?”

“The horrifically inhumane methods used in these disturbing mass animal killings must be stopped,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The haphazard disposal of the carcasses of millions of tortured animals in areas where they may pollute groundwaters makes this not just an animal welfare problem but also a health and environmental justice tragedy.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund continues to seek whistleblowers who can report safety issues, animal cruelty, or other concerns anonymously through an online tip portal — The mass killing of animals and other side effects of animal agriculture’s fragile supply chain can strain the mental health of workers tasked with carrying out such cruelty.

A copy of the petition is available upon request.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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