An animal rights group is asking local county attorneys to press charges against two Minnesota companies after thousands of broiler chickens and hundreds of turkeys died from apparent excessive heat exposure at their slaughterhouses this summer.

The allegations levied by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) against Jennie-O Turkey and Butterfield Foods stem from observations filed by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at the processing plants.

Last month, Washington, D.C.-based AWI sent letters to Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall and Watonwan County Attorney Stephen Lindee asking them to press charges against the meat processors under a Minnesota law that prohibits depriving any animal of necessary food, water or shelter, or keep them enclosed without a change of air.

Unlike cattle and hogs that are protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors do not monitor and enforce animal welfare issues at poultry slaughterhouses, except for instances when that treatment could affect food quality and safety — such as severe bruising.

But USDA inspectors often file "memorandum of interview" notices, or MOIs, if they witness birds dying from causes other than slaughter or if they observe inhumane treatment of birds that might violate the industry's good commercial practices.

The AWI, which obtained several MOIs under the Freedom of Information Act, found that 2,552 out of 6,000 chickens were found dead on a truck trailer outside Butterfield Foods' processing facility in Butterfield, Minn., on June 9.

The trailer had been parked overnight on a dirt lot outside the plant. Most of the deaths were among birds on the right side of the trailer, which had more afternoon sun and heat exposure.

The food company did not respond to a request for comment sent by e-mail and did not answer the phone.

The AWI found five instances between April and June that resulted in the death of hundreds of turkeys on trailers outside a Jennie-O Turkey plant in Melrose, Minn.

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel, which owns Jennie-O, said an employee of the third-party contractor it hires to load turkeys onto transport trailers made a miscalculation "that led to some reduced air movement during transportation."

"While the contractor's actions were not intentional, due to the company's commitment surrounding animal welfare stewardship, Jennie-O asked that the individual be removed from the position and added supplemental training sessions," Hormel said in a lengthy statement to the Star Tribune. "Additional procedures including auditing of bird counts were implemented to ensure that proper guidelines are followed."

The MOIs show several consecutive days in early June of temperatures hovering around 95 degrees at Jennie-O's Melrose plant when a USDA inspector noticed large swaths of turkeys panting with drooping wings, both key signs of heat stress.

An inspector noticed feathers and debris were blocking several fans and the misters did not have proper air flow to effectively cool the birds. The inspector urged immediate actions that took several days to implement, resulting in additional MOIs and meetings with management to stress the importance of the birds' comfort.

"These records are essentially a memo to remind [processors] of their own standards," said Erin Sutherland, staff attorney with the AWI. "There are no enforcement actions taken against them by the USDA. Nothing really comes of it."

Dr. Michelle Kromm, Hormel's head of animal care and head veterinarian for Jennie-O, said issues related to animal welfare are taken seriously and addressed immediately.

There are four federal laws that address animal welfare and treatment, said Beth Ventura, associate professor of animal welfare at the University of Minnesota's department of animal sciences.

Two of those laws relate to farm animals, including the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, but none apply to poultry.

"Poultry don't count as animals from a legal standpoint, federally," Ventura said. "It's kind of bonkers."

There's a patchwork of laws and anti-cruelty statutes at the state level across the U.S.; some include poultry and some that don't.

"The U.S. does not tend to approach improvement in protecting animals via a legislative framework," Ventura said. "We have other mechanisms in place, that industry and society have tended to funnel efforts through."

Consumer demands, industry-farmer collaborations and third-party labeling or verification schemes combine to form generally agreed-upon guidelines for humane treatment of broilers and turkeys.

Part of the issue, Ventura said, is that the poultry industry is so much larger than cattle, pigs and sheep that ensuring humane treatment for all is more challenging.

In 2020, nearly 9.76 billion land animals were killed for food in the U.S., with chickens accounting for 95% of all slaughters. Turkeys were a distant second, at 223 million, according to USDA data.

Humans also hold a different perception of birds versus larger livestock.

"Poultry tend to gather less social concern as a species," Ventura said. "People care about animals that are cute, perceived as intelligent and familiar. It's harder to relate to a chicken and that can translate into lower social concern."

Animal welfare sciences as a field has grown since the passage of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958. At the time, there was significant debate over whether birds are sentient.

"The field of animal cognition is exploding. We are realizing how fantastically complex these animals are. Every day they are making decisions that are life or death," Ventura said. "There's no question they are sentient. Of course they are sentient. All livestock species are."

Lindee, the county attorney, said he is reviewing the advocacy group's letter. Kendall of Stearns County confirmed that her office received the letter, but she can't seek criminal prosecution unless referred by law enforcement.

"So this will need to go to the law enforcement agency with that jurisdiction, and I've not yet determined which agency that would be," Kendall wrote in an e-mailed response to a reporter's phone call. "We will direct the sender to that agency."

Sutherland said the AWI would be interested in sharing the information with law enforcement, "but at this time we'd like to hear back from the prosecuting attorney directly first."

The AWI has a history of pressing for changes in farm animal treatment, including poultry. Last year, the organization filed a joint lawsuit with Farm Sanctuary, another animal rights group, against the USDA for failing to protect the welfare of chickens and turkeys raised for human food.

That case is still active.