Opinion: There’s a scary truth behind your favorite Super Bowl snack

Think twice about ordering chicken wings this Sunday.

Americans enjoy 1.4 billion chicken wings during the Super Bowl. Laid end to end, these wings could encircle the Earth three times! Yet, behind this impressive statistic hides a less palatable reality: the plight of the 350 million chickens sacrificed annually for this tradition, the suffering of slaughterhouse workers and the emergence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.

Chickens raised for meat predominately live their short lives on factory farms. In cage-free systems, birds are confined in large buildings containing up to 30,000 chickens, each allotted less than one square foot of space. Chickens endure this cramped existence until they reach their target weight around 2 months of age.

The slaughter method imposed on the majority of chickens in the United States is called live shackling. During this distressing process, fully conscious chickens hang inverted by their feet as their heads are submerged in an electrified water bath, stunning them before being slaughtered by an automatic blade.

Horrifically, sometimes birds evade proper stunning and their throats are cut while still conscious. Even more terrible still, is the scenario in which birds miss the slaughter blade entirely and are boiled alive in the scalding tanks designed for de-feathering. This grim fate is not an isolated incident, but a nightmarish reality faced by many of the 9.6 billion chickens killed annually in the U.S.

In a poultry slaughterhouse, chickens are not the only victims. Within the walls of these dangerous and often unhygienic facilities, workers experience significant psychological distress as they are forced to engage in the gruesome activities of poultry processing. Slaughterhouse workers suffer high rates of depression and perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Despite the physical and physiological toll of slaughterhouse work, employees are poorly compensated for it. The median salary for poultry processors is $26,449 a year – significantly lower than the national median income of $41,535. Reflecting broader social injustices, the slaughterhouse workforce is predominantly composed of people of color, with a significant percentage being immigrant workers and refugees. This not only highlights the exploitative nature of the industry but also the social and economic inequalities it perpetuates.

Recently, daily headlines have described the ongoing devastation of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), or “bird flu,” on the poultry industry and wildlife. However, these stories often fail to mention the role industrial poultry farming has played in the emergence and spread of this disease. HPAI arose when a milder avian influenza virus mutated — its genetic code changed — within infected chickens on commercial farms, creating the deadly H5N1 virus responsible for HPAI.

Instead of tackling the root cause, large scale modern intensive animal agriculture, the USDA has concentrated efforts on controlling the disease by depopulating flocks using Ventilation Shutdown Plus (VSD+). This method involves closing barn ventilation, raising the temperature to over 104 degrees and killing the birds en masse with heatstroke over several hours.

Since February 2022, HPAI has devastated more than 81 million farmed birds, including 2.3 million in Utah, most of whom were culled using VSD+. Despite the massive number of birds killed in effort to quell the transmission of the disease, HPAI has spread to wildlife with disastrous consequences.

In the U.S. 8,753 wild birds have succumbed to HPAI since January 2022, including bald eagles, gulls, pelicans, hawks, owls and notably 20% of the endangered California condor flock in Arizona. The virus has ravaged 18 different species of mammals across the country, including bobcats, brown bears, bottlenose dolphins and over 3,000 seals along the New England coastline. In Utah, a mountain lion and a red fox were killed by the virus, and Alaska just reported the first polar bear casualty in early January.

As a wildlife biologist and veterinary student, I recognize the urgent need for solutions to this crisis that prioritize wildlife health, animal welfare and our own food security. And while personal food choices — like swapping out our Super Bowl snacks with slaughter-free alternatives — do have some impact, we need systemic change.

Disturbingly, billions of tax-payer dollars are given to support this industry.

Our Honor, a veterinary organization dedicated to ending the suffering of all animals, sent FOIA requests to The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the United States Department of Agriculture and found that, since the beginning of the HPAI outbreak, Jennie-O Turkey Store received more than $85 million in bailouts for avian influenza, while Tyson Foods received $29 million. Both companies resorted to using VSD+ to kill their birds while the combined 2023 compensation of their two CEOs summed $20 million dollars.

Upset about this? Contact your representatives to tell them you don’t want your hard-earned tax dollars to support the salaries of slaughter-based food industry executives who continue to harm humans, other animals and our planet. When our goal is to protect the most vulnerable among us, we protect our own interests too.

Larrea Cottingham

Larrea Cottingham is a second-year veterinary student at Utah State University and a student representative of Our Honor, a veterinary organization dedicated to ending the suffering of all animals. When she’s not attending classes in Logan, she lives in San Juan County. Larrea has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in teaching science. Before attending vet school, Larrea worked throughout the state and country as a wildlife biologist. Her most recent work was dedicated to protecting Utah’s migratory birds and raptors.

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