Sunday, September 10, 2006

Big chicken

Morgan Holcomb's post on the application of the Humane Slaughter Act to poultry has provoked some interesting commentary. As to the question of why the 1958 legislation neglected specifically to mention poutry, I think there are several things to look for in the legislative history:
    Big Chicken
  1. The contemporary poultry industry as we know it came together rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. As with so much else, the generation after World War II set the stage. Chickens historically were raised primarily for eggs; poultry was a relatively expensive byproduct of the egg production cycle. See generally National Broiler Marketing Ass'n v. United States, 436 U.S. 816 (1978). The commercial status of veal (a commercially dictated if rather brutal byproduct of dairy production) provides a good basis for comparison.

  2. Poultry production is not evenly distributed on a regional basis. In the 50-year period from 1914 to 1964 -- basically the span between the "golden age" of American agriculture, as marked by the legal definition of "parity," and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- the old order in Southern agriculture dominated and distorted agricultural legislation. Rather inconveniently for today's Midwest-dominated pool of specialists in agricultural law, this period includes the New Deal and the initial wave of legislation (including the Humane Slaughter Act) that responded to the rise of contemporary agribusiness.

  3. Don't forget that A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935), a classic constitutional case from the New Deal, arose from a dispute over the National Industrial Relations Act's provisions governing poultry slaughter. Schechter's direct impact on the Humane Slaughter Act is probably minimal or nonexistent, but that controversy does serve to illustrate how far poultry productoin had to go in the generation between the Great Depression and the height of the Cold War.

  4. Perhaps most gruesome of all to contemplate is the state of biological thinking circa 1958. It would not be terribly difficult, I suspect, to document a prevalent belief among professional biologists, let alone farmers, lobbyists, and legislators, that birds as "less advanced" forms of life did not feel pain on par with mammals. Slaughter protocols are not cheap. At a minimum they are not cost free. It would have been easy to dismiss the idea of slaughter protocols for poultry as simply being too expensive for a not altogether worthy set of farm animals slain for meat, and at that as an afterthought relative to their eggs.
Or perhaps I am merely clucking from the sidelines here at Agricultural Law. I wonder what insights we might gather from the wisdom of crowds -- namely, of course, our audience.


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