Fight fire with fire regarding animal handling

by Bryan Salvage
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Humane animal handling should be a no-brainer. First and foremost, it is the right thing to do from a moral standpoint — and it is also the right thing to do from a business standpoint. Carefully cared-for animals ultimately become top-quality products customers and consumers are seeking and demanding.

Yet despite humane animal handling conferences and training sessions being held year after year throughout industry, there have been an alarming number of media reports in recent months regarding undercover video being taken of alleged animal abuse at farms and slaughter plants by various groups.

In mid-February, six Butterball turkey farm workers in Hoke County, NC, were arrested on animal-abuse charges after an undercover video depicted animal abuse. These arrests happened following the release of an undercover video taken by Mercy for Animals, an animal rights group. After viewing the undercover video, Hoke County law enforcement officials raided the farm on Dec. 28, 2011.

More recently, two pork production facilities in Oklahoma, one owned by Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based Seaboard Foods and another by Clinton, NC-based Prestage Farms, were targeted by undercover videos taken by the Humane Society of the United States. The breeding facilities in the videos were reportedly in Goodwell, Okla.

Video footage, reportedly taken in late 2011, was released on Jan. 31 by HSUS depicting what the group called “prolonged suffering of pigs used for breeding who are confined in cages so small the animals can’t even turn around.” HSUS claimed in a press release that unsanitary and cruel conditions inside the crates caused injuries to some animals featured in the videos while resulting in the death of other pigs. The group claimed the investigation and footage was taken during 30 days at the Seaboard facility and 14 days at the Prestage facility.

HSUS next filed legal complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Federal Trade Commission, stating using gestation stalls contradicts Seaboard’s claims that its animal welfare programs are sound. Seaboard Foods disputed the abuse allegations on Jan. 31 saying it follows industry protocols and practices for animal welfare.

In late February, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) announced it had created an Animal Care Review Panel to review and assess the footage featured in an increasing number of undercover video investigations at livestock farms. Consisting of animal-welfare experts, the panel will examine video footage and communicate their findings to the public. Although this process has been established initially for the pork industry, CFI said it is prepared to work with other animal protein segments. This is a positive next step to educate the entire food chain as to what constitutes real animal abuse.

Regarding a recent release of video footage from an Iowa hog operation by Compassion Over Killing, a panel consisting of animal-handling expert Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State Univ.; Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue Univ.; and Dr. Tom Burkgren, American Association of Swine Veterinarians reviewed the video. They concluded most of what was depicted was not considered abusive and was part of normally accepted production practices. Some scenes would require more footage for the panel to draw accurate conclusions, they said.

Operating independently, the Animal Care Review Panel’s reviews, assessments, recommendations and reports will not be submitted to the pork industry for review or approval. CFI’s only role is to facilitate the review process and release the panel’s findings.

Some in the industry have questioned if some of these underground videos are legitimate or if they had been doctored somehow by various groups to plant in the public’s mind the perception of animal abuse. That will be for the authorities and courts to decide.

But whenever animal abuse is found and proven to be legitimate, those found beyond a doubt to be responsible for such abuse should be, at the very least, fired and then prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Likewise, if any undercover videos are found to be fraudulent in anyway, those responsible for producing the videos should also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

And then there’s the question of what to do about those who have gained access to a business to take undercover videos by being hired under false pretenses. Seems to me this would be illegal and should not be simply dismissed. And companies also should take legal steps to make such a practice less attractive for those considering such moves.

It’s clear that operators of slaughtering facilities as well as producers must conduct business following humane animal handling policies and not just provide lip service that it is being accomplished. This requires top management to be directly involved to ensure humane animal handling is taking place on a daily basis. Video monitoring of live animal operations is one good way to help accomplish this goal. Not only will it keep top management in the loop, it may also catch someone in the shadows taking undercover videos.

Operate your slaughtering facilities and holding pens under the premise that undercover cameras are always on-premises and do everything possible to render the activists’ undercover videos as simply nothing more than proof that your business “walks the walk” when it comes to upholding animal welfare standards.

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