PHILLIPS County, Colo., authorities informed Seaboard Foods early last week of allegations of improper treatment of pigs on three of its Colorado farms. Seaboard Foods senior level management immediately initiated an internal investigation, which ultimately led to the termination of five employees, as well as two management supervisors.
On May 6, animal rights group Mercy for Animals publicly released the undercover video showing the alleged “criminal animal abuse.”
“In the limited undercover video made available to us, we identified instances that depict improper handling while loading pigs on trucks, which does not adhere to Seaboard Foods’ training and best practices for moving pigs and ensuring they are comfortable and healthy so we can deliver safe, nutritious and delicious pork to our customers,” Seaboard said in a statement posted on the company’s website. “As seen in the undercover video, the handling is unacceptable and inexcusable.”
Seaboard Foods requires employees to report any alleged animal mishandling to the company’s toll-free hotline, but MFA went directly to the authorities.
“We are disappointed the organization that made the complaint and took the undercover video, which purports to be concerned about animal welfare, did not report the allegations to us directly through our toll-free hotline as is required by any employee, especially after acknowledging Seaboard Foods’ comprehensive animal care program and commitment to the proper and humane treatment of animals and our zero-tolerance policy in the complaint to the Sheriff’s Office,” the company statement said.
The company said that while animal handling techniques were not used properly in the undercover video, use of tools, such as sort boards and rattle cans, are considered best practices in animal care.
“We also acknowledge that sometimes even the best practices as determined by veterinarians and animal care experts can seem uncomfortable to those who don’t spend their days with these animals, especially when viewed in context of a video with an agenda to end meat consumption,” the company stated.
Expert panel assessment
An Animal Care Review Panel—comprised of Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson from University of Illinois, Dr. Temple Grandin from Colorado State University, and executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Dr. Tom Burkgren—independently examined the video to assess the alleged abuse.
In the video, farm employees were seen using sort boards and shakers to move hogs from a barn. In a number of scenes, the panels and shakers were used to strike the animals, presumably to get them to move.
“I would call that ‘rough handling’ of the pigs,” said Grandin. “The sorting panels should not be used to hit the animals. I would not call it abuse but it was rough handling.”
Salak-Johnson said the employees were definitely overly aggressive and improperly using animal handling devices, but added that she didn’t see anything that would suggest the animals were in pain.
Another segment of the video showed a hog being euthanized with a captive bolt gun, which all three members of the panel agreed was done properly.
“It’s normal for the animal to do a lot of kicking in this situation and I’m sure it looks terrible to people who are unfamiliar with it, but it’s completely normal,” said Grandin. “The animal has been rendered senseless and there is no pain or suffering.”
Salak-Johnson said that while the pig went down quickly with one shot, “which is what you want to happen.” However, from a worker safety perspective, she was surprised the euthanasia was done in a pen with other pigs.
Burkgren said he had an issue with a single person catching the pig, holding it and applying the captive bolt. Additionally, he said the employee should have checked to see if the pig was insensible. “We didn’t see that in the video, but we only saw a brief clip. So we don’t know if that took place.”
Animal rights videos typically focus on “crowded” conditions, however, the expert panel suggested the crowding in the newly released video was likely due to other factors.
“When you see pigs jumping on top of each other, there’s probably something going on nearby that we can’t see in the video – probably some human activity,” said Johnson. “Even when in open space, pigs will lay on each other.”
“It’s not uncommon to hold pigs temporarily in a pen like this before loading them into the truck,” said Burkgren, adding that the pigs were probably not living in those pens.
“It’s difficult to judge given the lack of context in the video,” he said.
Undercover hog farm videos also often show pigs biting the metal bars of a pen. In this particular video, the narrator suggested that experts consider this to be a sign of serious mental collapse.
“There is no scientific evidence to support that comment,” said Johnson. “The animal might be manipulating its mouth on the bar because it’s feeding time. We can’t tell from this brief video.”
“‘Serious mental collapse’ is not really a scientific term,” said Burkgren. “Experts look at this not as just a sign that the pigs are in distress.”
“It’s a narrow-minded view to lump this behavior into some kind of psychological category,” he said.