RELEASING its second undercover video in three weeks, Mercy For Animals (MFA) targeted a hog farm supplying Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and called on the world's largest retailer to force its food vendors to abandon the use of gestation stalls in their production systems.
The undercover video drew swift response from the industry. Tyson Foods severed all ties with the Oklahoma farm depicted in the footage, and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) called the recorded abuses "appalling."
The video, captured by an MFA operative working at West Coast Farms in Okfuskee County, Okla., showed pigs being thrown, kicked and picked up by their ears. Employees were recorded using their fingers to gouge pigs' eyes, and in one instance, an employee vigorously shook a small pig.
"The behavior of the employees is abusive to animals," Colorado State University animal welfare expert Temple Grandin said. "Kicking and beating animals is never acceptable."
Grandin was one of three experts who reviewed the video footage as part of a panel convened by the Center For Food Integrity in an effort to provide expert perspectives for food retailers, the pork industry and the media.
Panelist Candace Croney, an animal behaviorist with Purdue University, said the employee actions shown in the video were clear examples of unacceptable abuse.
"These behaviors violate every principle of humane animal handling and go against everything the swine industry advocates for providing decent quality care for animals," she said. "They are deeply disturbing. No pig farmer who is a responsible steward of animals can support the abusive handling of animals that is seen in this video."
NPPC leaders agreed. The organization released a statement strongly denouncing the behaviors shown in the footage, saying the actions violated the "high standards" of the pork industry.
"NPPC does not condone and, in fact, strongly condemns practices that are not in accordance with U.S. pork industry best practices," the group said in the statement. "Farmers do not defend and will not accept abuse of animals."
The organization called on local authorities to conduct a thorough investigation and to bring criminal charges against workers who abused animals.
Tyson said it had immediately ended its contract with West Coast Farms and would be taking possession of the animals remaining on the farm. The company said it would not tolerate the kind of animal mishandling shown in the video.
University of Minnesota veterinary epidemiologist John Deen questioned how well employees were trained and how closely they were managed.
"Training is readily available on how these animals should be treated," he explained. "This is a short video, and we're not sure what else is going on, but what is seen is indicative of behaviors that probably reflect the overall level of care on this particular farm."
Proper training has been a key focus of the industry in recent years, with the National Pork Board's "We Care" initiative incorporating some animal handling and training resources. Similarly, the board's Pork Quality Assurance Plus program covers topics such as proper handling and euthanasia.
Those resources appeared to have gone unused at West Coast Farms.
"They probably were not trained," Grandin said. "If they were trained, it was very poor training."
Other species targeted
While the hog industry has borne the brunt of animal activists' undercover video work in recent months, the veal industry was recently targeted as well.
Compassion Over Killing, another animal rights group known for utilizing members disguised as farm workers, recently released a video depicting abuses at a Colorado dairy farm.
The county sheriff's office filed criminal charges of cruelty to animals against the three workers depicted in the video, which was filmed at Quanah Cattle Co. The company announced that it had fired the three individuals, who were shown dragging, kicking and throwing young dairy calves.
"If this facility had been a slaughter plant, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have shut them down," Grandin said after reviewing the footage.
California feed manufacturer J.D. Heiskell is a partial investor in the Quanah operation and quickly denounced the former employees' behavior.
"We do not tolerate animal abuse. Animal care is the number-one priority for us," Heiskell chairman Scott Hillman said. "Since we learned about the incident, we have taken immediate corrective action and terminated the individuals seen in the video."
Hillman said the company would strengthen the training and supervision of workers at the facility to ensure compliance with industry care and welfare standards.
The poultry industry was also involved in a dustup over animal care last week, with the National Chicken Council responding to a letter from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) claiming that industry growth rates and standard living conditions of chickens "not only pose serious concerns for their welfare but may also present food safety risks."
Chicken council vice president of communications Tom Super said ASPCA's description of modern poultry production "is not based on fact and in no way represents the realities of modern poultry production or the health and welfare of today's chickens."
Super said if the industry reverted to the production practices of yesteryear, the mortality rate for chickens would actually increase 490%. He added that mortality and condemnation rates for broilers are at historical lows.