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Going Down the Rabbit Hole of Deceit

An advocacy group uncovers shocking conditions in the country’s largest rabbit processing plant, raising questions about why the USDA and its Humane Slaughter Act do nothing to protect a whole class of animals.
(Photo: africa924/Shutterstock)

(Photo: africa924/Shutterstock)

“We had no idea that we were going to see what we saw.” These are never words you want to hear about a slaughterhouse. But they’re exactly what Adam Wilson, the director of investigations at Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group, said about his organization’s recent investigation of Pel-Freez, the nation’s largest rabbit processing plant, located in Rogers, Arkansas.

The details, obtained by an undercover agent who worked at Pel-Freez as a “blood catcher” for six weeks last fall, are, even by abattoir standards, morbid. Slaughterhouse workers were filmed improperly stunning rabbits by whacking them in the face with the dull side of a knife (electrical stunning is the norm); they broke the legs of conscious rabbits to better fit them onto J-hooks designed for poultry; they decapitated fully conscious rabbits; and they ignored grievous rabbit injuries. Wilson noted how, in one instance, a worker encountered an abscessed wound on a rabbit so filled with pus that he wretched.

These problems were not anomalies; they were standard operating procedures. Rabbits, which almost never make noise, even when under stress, routinely screamed while being subjected to these abuses. “Vocalization (screaming) after the blow on the head ... are clear indicators that the animal is not stunned and is in extreme fear and pain,” according to one veterinarian asked to comment on the footage.

Rabbit meat is currently all the rage, a trend Pel-Freez has been essential in fostering. The main conduit between Pel-Freez and haute cuisine in the United States has been D’Artagnan, a supplier of specialty meats committed (according to its website) to “free-range, natural production, and sustainable, humane farming practices.” D’Artagnan supplies the nation’s leading chefs (here’s a list), including Thomas Keller and Alissa Dicker Schrieber (a.k.a. “The Kitchenista”). Clients often make a point of highlighting the “humanely sourced” meat they serve in their restaurants. This includes rabbit.

D’Artagnan takes pride in—and has been widely praised for—its focus on humane slaughter. Every farm that supplies D’Artagnan through Pel-Freez must, according to D’Artagnan, “sign an agreement to raise and process the rabbits humanely.” Arian Daguin, D’Artagnan’s CEO and co-founder, told the Washington Post in 2008 that humane slaughter was absolutely required to do business with her company. Daguin’s commitment to animal welfare is so comprehensive that she has claimed to have personally visited every farm—around 1,500—she does business with.

Rabbits are classified as “non-amenable” animals, a designation that removes them from humane slaughter regulations.

The fact that LCA’s findings contradict D’Artagnan’s “humane” claims has both short- and long-term implications. In the short term, there’s the vagueness of D’Artagnan’s formal response. When I asked the company about the LCA investigation, a Park Avenue public relations firm responded with a comment that it asked me to attribute to CEO Daguin. It read:

We strongly believe in the ethical treatment of animals and as a company, it is against our policy to work with partners who do not adhere to humane methods of farming, butchering and processing. D’Artagnan has addressed this with Pel-Freez and they have confirmed changes in their procedures to include only proper and humane slaughter methods.

Why did D’Artagnan, which claims to visit every farm it works with, not know of this problem earlier? LCA’s Adam Wilson, in an email, put it this way:

The obvious fact is that either D’Artagnan has never actually visited Pel-Freez before and simply fabricated the humane processing claim in order to sell more rabbits or they have actually visited the plant and they consider striking rabbits in the face with a knife and then breaking their legs to be part of D’Artagnan's commitment to local farming cooperatives that pledge to process rabbits humanely.

And what about D’Artagnan’s claim that Pel-Freez has “confirmed changes in their procedures”? That certainly sounds like an improvement. But where’s the beef? Did D’Artagnan—again, run by a CEO who is so hands-on she visits every farm with whom she works—verify these alleged changes? When I asked, the PR firm representative answered: “I can only provide you with the [above] statement at this time.”

But Pel-Freez had something to say about the company’s alleged improvements. Regina Stowe, foods division manager, explained to me in an email that:

Pel-Freez has made changes to it processes and is following current USDA rules and industry standards for its slaughter operations. If the USDA came out with different slaughter standards for rabbit processing, Pel-Freez would comply with whatever standard they issued.

But this is a non-answer. It ignores the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t require Pel-Freez to follow the Humane Slaughter Act. Rabbits are classified as “non-amenable” animals, a designation that removes them from humane slaughter regulations. In fact, when it comes to the treatment of live rabbits, the USDA can’t require Pel-Freez to do anything. The leg-breaking, the decapitation, the stunning with knives—none of these actions violate USDA standards. (Although they may violate existing Arkansas statues on animal cruelty—and a lawsuit is underway.)

The only reason that the USDA is at the facility in the first place is because Pel-Freez pays them to be there. It does this in order to receive a “wholesome” stamp on its rabbit meat—a value-added and voluntary designation that applies only to the quality of post-slaughter handling. Pel-Freez, in essence, pays the USDA for an unrequired stamp that will suggest to customers that all is well down in the rabbit hole.

But it’s not. The only thing more abused than rabbits in this unsavory scenario is language. The long-term implications of this incident center on the words we use to market food, in this case: “humane.” It’s this very word—which, when unregulated, means nothing—that has been used to connect an industrial giant (Pel-Freez) to a boutique supplier (D’Artagnan) to restaurants across the country aiming to serve responsibly sourced meat to ethically minded consumers. And, as LCA has shown, when it comes to rabbit meat, it’s all a hoax. Until we start speaking honestly about food production we’ll never be able to make the right choices about what we eat.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.