Livingston Foster Farms sued after being accused of wasting water to kill chickens

A California animal advocacy group is accusing California’s largest poultry plant of draining and spoiling an already drought-riddled aquifer, the Central Valley animal rights group is suing Foster Farms for wasting water during its chicken slaughtering process.

With California once again careening toward drought, the Animal Legal Defense Fund wants a state judge to order Foster Farms to cut back on the amount of groundwater it uses at its Merced County chicken processing plant. In an environmental lawsuit filed Wednesday, the defense fund says Foster Farms could slash its exorbitant water usage by adopting more “humane” slaughtering techniques.

“The profligate water use at this Foster Farms facility adds insult to injury, and the excessive water use in slaughtering chickens violates California law,” said Stephen Wells in a statement, defense fund executive director. “The fact that the slaughterhouse is operating in a water-scarce area — during a megadrought — makes its water use even more egregious.”

According to the 21-page complaint, Foster Farms’ Livingston, California, plant uses 3-4 million gallons of drinkable water daily, more than all the other water users in the rural city of 14,000 combined. The main reason, the defense fund argues, is Foster Farms’ water-intensive slaughter system.

The defense fund says Foster Farms uses a so-called “live-hang” system that entails chickens being shocked in pools of water before being shackled to a conveyor belt and eventually slaughtered by an automated razor. Aside from the large pools, the lawsuit states the technique requires additional water to clean up the chickens’ feces and vomit.

Citing the overdrafted Merced Subbasin, where the city sources its water supplies, the defense fund claims Foster Farms’ water consumption violates a clause in the California Constitution stating “water use must be reasonable and for a beneficial purpose.”

“Foster Farms uses a more water-intensive method of slaughtering chickens when an alternative method that is less water-intensive, and more humane, is feasible and readily available,” the complaint states. “In context, Foster Farms’ use of water for an unnecessarily cruel and costly method of slaughter is per se unreasonable.”

The lawsuit comes as water suppliers across the state are attempting to comply with the state’s first-ever groundwater management law passed during California’s recent historic drought.

Under a 2014 law coined the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or SGMA, the state placed 515 water basins into categories and required local users of the high and medium placements to form districts. The districts are in the process of coming up with “water budgets” and sustainability goals, and the new districts will have 20 years to comply with their goals once the plans are approved by the state.

Livingston taps into the Merced Subbasin in order to sell water to Foster Farms, other agricultural operations and residents. State regulators currently classify the basin as critically overdrafted, meaning the average amount of groundwater being pulled from the basin exceeds the amount of rainfall and other sources of water being returned. Overdrafting can lead to negative effects like sinking farmland or subsidence or seawater intrusion.

The defense fund claims Foster Farms has continued its excess water usage while private wells have gone dry and surrounding cities were forced to reduce usage during the last drought. The plaintiff wants the court to declare Foster Farms’ water consumption “unreasonable” and bar it from using groundwater supplies for live-hanging.

Prior to Wednesday’s lawsuit, the fund attempted to contact Foster Farms for a reasonable solution. However, it claims Foster Farms responded it couldn’t attempt any changes as the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing it to focus on “assuring a continuous food supply to our nation.”

Foster Farms did not immediately respond to a media request regarding the lawsuit.

The Foster Farms poultry facility at issue was shut down earlier this week due to a Covid-19 outbreak. The plant is the site of Merced County’s most severe outbreak, with 392 employees testing positive and eight deaths, resulting in a six-day closure for cleaning and employee testing. The remainder of the Livingston complex will remain open but with added prevention protocols.

“This health order is a significant step toward our ultimate goal of stemming the spread of Covid-19 in our community and saving lives,” said Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s public health officer. “We take these types of situations very seriously. We’re grateful that Foster Farms was willing to come to the table and reach an agreement that will protect its employees while providing a blueprint for the company to continue its critical food production operations.”

In addition to the live-hanging technique, the defense fund argues Foster Farms’ is returning tainted water back into the aquifer. The lawsuit states Foster Farms “regularly” exceeds the pollutant limits mandated by its wastewater permit.

“Thus, Foster Farms takes drinkable water from the subbasin and discharges it back to the ground, in a lower quantity, as undrinkable wastewater that consistently fails to conform to Foster Farms’ Permit and degrades the water quality of the Merced Subbasin,” the complaint states

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