AVMA Should Have A Consistent Ethic On Animal Care

By Karen Davis, PhD and Holly Cheever, DVM

Society has every reason to applaud the strides that are being made against cockfighting in this country. Last year, voters in Arizona and Missouri banned cockfighting, leaving only three states to go. Now, this year, Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) has introduced a bill (SB 345) that if passed into law will ban the shipment of birds intended for cockfighting from states where cockfighting is illegal to states where it is still legal. By introducing this bill, Senator Allard, a veterinarian, has proposed legislation that accords with the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which holds that cockfighting should be classed as a felony offense.

Given the AVMA's strong stand against cockfighting, it is deeply disappointing that the association has refused to take a stand against a practice that is every bit as cruel as cockfighting and one that puts many more birds in a state of continuous suffering. The practice, which is known as forced molting, involves the starvation of entire flocks of hens by the egg industry for purely economic objectives. Each year the U.S. egg industry deprives millions of hens--six million hens at any given time--of all food for up to fourteen days in order to manipulate their metabolism and force exhausted birds to pump out a few hundred more eggs before going to slaughter. During the forced molt, food-deprived hens peck desperately at empty metal troughs and are driven to pluck and eat each others' feathers to obtain nutrients. Countless hens die from the stress. When food is finally restored to the surviving hens, many of them choke to death in trying to swallow it after having been starved for so long.

Forced molting is a blatantly cruel practice that should be illegal. It is so stressful to the birds that it impairs their immune systems, predisposing the hens and their eggs to Salmonella infection. Summarizing the enormous background of information on the subject, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the authors in a letter dated August 21, 1998, that it "recognizes that public health concerns are raised by highly stressful forced molting practices."

The AVMA is similarly aware of the link between forced molting and foodborne illness. In a report published last year in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), entitled "Salmonella Enteritidis infections in the United States" (December 15, 1998), the authors noted not only that Salmonella is a "major health problem," but that "Eggs are the predominant source of Salmonella Enteritidis infections in humans." Most significantly from the standpoint of prevention, the report noted that Salmonellosis is a foodborne disease that has been "traced back to the farm of origin" and that infected hens have been identified as the source of many outbreaks. The report concluded that while consumers can reduce their risk of Salmonella infection by avoiding eating undercooked or raw eggs, "control of Salmonella will require preventing infections in egg- laying and broiler chickens."

This should be a call upon the poultry and egg industry to eliminate forced molting as a necessary step to disease prevention. Instead, the AVMA has chosen to turn a blind eye to forced molting. Ignoring the requests of veterinarians and animal protectionists around the country to adopt a humane position on the treatment of hens used for egg production, the AVMA at a recent meeting merely added a provision to its existing policy that "Additional research is needed to improve the welfare aspects of the molting process." Really what this means is that untold numbers of hens will continue to be experimentally starved in laboratories as well as being starved commercially at the farm level.

Forced molting experiments have already been conducted for decades and reams of articles have been published showing the harm of starving the birds. To summarize, the practice of forced molting produced the following lesions (injuries) and effects: a 15-35% loss of body weight due to loss of mass from fat, muscle, skeleton, liver, and feathers; beaded ribs and pathological fractures noted at slaughter; a decrease in immunocompetence due primarily to a depressed T-cell (thymus immunity) response, and hemorrhagic gastrointestinal tracts with an increase in the shedding of and susceptibility to Salmonella Enteritidis, which adds the concern of public safety to that of animal welfare. What more does the American Veterinary Medical Association require?

While the AVMA cannot regulate the poultry and egg industry, (any more than it can regulate the cockfighting business), it can and should adopt a policy of opposition to forced molting, as it has effectively done on cockfighting. By virtue of the authority of the AVMA, the policy would have a major impact. No one knows better than a veterinarian how terribly an animal can suffer. The public expects veterinarians to heal animals, not profit from their misery. Instead of condoning the starvation of hens for profit, the AVMA should stand up for the hens as it has done for the victims of cockfighting. Our request is for consistent protection for all animals, including farmed animals.

Readers wishing to receive more information, including a copy of the sign-on petition to stop forced molting should write to United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405; and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, PO Box 208, Davis, CA 95617. This commentary was distributed by the Knight- Ridder/Tribune Information Service and appeared in The Chicago Tribune March 31, 1999. Please feel free to reprint and distribute. Copyright UPC & AVAR. Thank you.