Mercy for Animals’ latest undercover video targeting a Seaboard Foods’ hog farm in Colorado led to accusations of animal abuse, but further investigations by Seaboard Foods, a panel of industry experts and local officials tell a different story.
Seaboard Foods the last to know, first to respond
Though the video targeted a Seaboard hog farm in northeastern Colorado, the company was among the last to know of the alleged incidents of abuse. In a statement available here, Seaboard Foods explained it first became aware of the allegations after the video was released to authorities (and media) last week.
“When made aware of these claims, Seaboard Foods senior level management immediately initiated an internal investigation, and based on our findings and zero-tolerance policy for improper animal handling, five employees, as well as two management supervisors, have been terminated,” the company explained in a news released here.
As of last week, a full, unedited version of the undercover footage had not yet been made available to Seaboard Foods officials.
Seaboard Foods also quickly called out Mercy for Animals for purporting its concerns about animal welfare despite never reporting abuse concerns directly through the company’s toll-free hotline “as is required by any employee.”
No charges filed
The Phillips County, Colo., District Attorney had more bad news for Mercy for Animals. Following an investigation, no charges will be filed against Seaboard Foods or the employees seen in the video. According to FOX31 Denver in a report here, the district attorney said it found no “no credible evidence that the animals housed at Seaboard were or are being abused to the point warranting the filing of charges.”
A local veterinarian visited the farm as part of the district attorney’s investigation and concluded the pigs did not appear agitated and there were signs of contusions, abrasions or other abuse indicators.
Local 9 News added the district attorney said it believes by Seaboard Foods firing the employees featured in the video, the farm used an appropriate course of action.
See, “No charges for CO farm workers videotaped hitting pigs”
Expert panel looks at alleged abuse and finds none
The Center for Food Integrity’s Animal Care Review Panel also examined the undercover video. This panel is comprised of Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State University; Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson, University of Illinois; and Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.
These industry experts concluded on several accusations made by Mercy for Animals, including:
Animal handling: In the video, farm employees were seen using sort boards and shakers to move hogs from a barn; a number of scenes included these tools being used to hit the animals. As Grandin explained, “I would call that ‘rough handling’ of the pigs. The sorting panels should not be used to hit the animals. I would not call it abuse but it was rough handling.”
Euthanasia: Another segment of the video featured an employee properly using a captive bolt gun to humanely euthanize a hog. Salak-Johnson pointed that “this form of euthanasia is accepted by the American Veterinary Medical Association. The pig went down quickly with one shot, which is what you want to happen. From a worker safety perspective, I was surprised it was done in the pen with other pigs around.”
Crowded conditions: The video narration describes the pigs as “crowded in metal concrete pens” and were “pushing and climbing over other animals.” Burkgren drew on his own experience: “It’s not uncommon to hold pigs temporarily in a pen like this before loading them into the truck. From my experience, I would say those pigs were not necessarily living in those pens but were being held there temporarily during the process of moving them from the barn and into a truck. It’s difficult to judge given the lack of context in the video.”
CHICAGO — Closing the gap on three issues driving consumer distrust in animal agriculture — animal housing, emerging genetic advancements and antibiotics use — will be the focus of The Center for Food Integrity 2016 North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture, May 18-19, at McDonald’s Hamburger University in Chicago.
The center’s latest consumer trust research reveals that a near-record 60 percent strongly agree with the following statement: “If animals are treated decently and humanely I have no problem eating meat, milk and eggs.”
Yet a much smaller percentage of consumers, 25 percent, strongly agree that U.S. meat comes from humanely treated animals.
“Leaders in animal agriculture must effectively address this disconnect between consumer support for consuming meat, milk and eggs and growing doubt that farm animals are treated humanely,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the center. “Our conference, ‘How Do We Close the Animal Ag Gap?’, will explore why the divide exists and what those in animal agriculture can do to close it, focusing specifically on three topics we believe are drivers for consumer distrust.”
Expert speakers and panelists will present and participate in moderated discussion on each topic.
From gestation stalls to cage-free eggs, animal housing has received considerable attention as consumers express interest in the issue, asking restaurants and retailers to meet their expectations.
Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society of the United States vice president of farm animal protection, will join Janeen Salak-Johnson, University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences stress physiology and animal well-being associate professor, on the first panel, addressing topics related to animal housing.
In the second panel session, Alison Van Eennenaam, University of California-Davis Cooperative Extension Service animal genomics and biotechnology specialist, will be joined by Dr. Bill Christianson, chief operating officer of PIC, and Mark Walton, chief marketing officer of Recombinetics, to discuss emerging genetic advancements being used in animals.
PIC recently announced the development of the first porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome-resistant pigs. Recombinetics is developing technology to inhibit horn growth in dairy cows.
The third session will examine antibiotic use in agriculture as it relates to animal well-being and human health. Dr. Leah Dorman, Phibro Animal Health director of food integrity and consumer engagement, will join Maryn McKenna, journalist, author and contributor at National Geographic, on the panel.
The Strategy Conference will close with a panel of consumers offering their insights and perspectives on issues related to animal agriculture.
The annual conference, sponsored by the United Soybean Board, hosts leaders from local, state, national and international producer organizations and livestock coalitions, along with allied industry, branded food companies and government organizations.
Free to attend, the Strategy Conference begins at 1 p.m. May 18 and adjourns at noon May 19. Learn more and register to attend at www.FoodIntegrity.org.
The Business Side of Animal Rights
January 26, 2015 by Jacob Bunge & Kelsey Gee
At a pig farm in Texas, pregnant sows are housed in crates. Advocates say the crates protect the animals and workers. Critics say they are inhumanely small. PHOTO: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/ZUMA PRESS
Animal-welfare advocates are courting a new Wall Street ally as they take on big U.S. meatpackers: proxy advisory firms.
Groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. for years have sought to build support among large companies’ shareholders to push for changes in animal treatment, often finding little traction. Now, some pitches are being tailored to win backing from increasingly influential firms that advise investors on how to vote their shares, including Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. and Glass, Lewis & Co.
The Humane Society earlier this month landed the endorsements of ISS and Glass Lewis for its shareholder proposal that Hormel Foods Corp., the maker of Spam, detail the financial risks that could arise from the meatpacker’s reliance on hog farmers who house pregnant sows in enclosures called gestation crates.
Animal-rights proponents say the gestation stalls, typically about two feet wide, prevent sows from turning around, leaving only enough room to stand up and lie down.
As animal-rights advocates focus on the financial-risk angle instead of merely animal treatment, they “are getting a bit more savvy with respect to what shareholders are wanting to support,” said Courteney Keatinge, senior environmental, social and governance analyst at Glass Lewis.
Hormel has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal at its annual meeting Tuesday, saying it already has asked its hog suppliers to consider group housing for sows when new facilities are built. The Austin, Minn., company previously announced plans to phase out gestation crates at its company-operated hog farms, though these supply only about 6% of its pork needs, according to regulatory filings.
“The company feels it has adequately assessed its risks and has disclosed them appropriately,” a Hormel spokesman said.
More food companies are embracing campaigns by animal-welfare groups to revamp farming methods. Companies including Nestlé SA and Starbucks Corp. recently have announced tougher standards for their suppliers, including phasing out the use of sow-gestation crates and egg producers’ practice of placing hens in cages.
Advocacy groups pushing companies to alter environmental or social practices aim to harness a growing tendency among institutional investors such as mutual funds to press for change at companies, rather than divest their shares in protest. At the same time, proxy firms, which major investors pay for advice on corporate referendums and board elections, are expanding their influence, weighing in on more corporate matters across a broader range of companies.
In late 2013, the Humane Society submitted a proposal at Tyson, the largest U.S. meat processor by sales, seeking more detail about possible financial risks created by its use of gestation crates. The group cited plans by about 60 restaurants and retailers, including McDonald’s Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Kroger Co., to eliminate the crates from their supply chains, arguing that Tyson stood to lose business if it didn’t push for change among its hog suppliers.
ISS backed the Tyson proposal, the first time the firm had supported an effort aimed at gestation crates, according to Edward Kamonjoh, ISS’s head of U.S. strategic research analysis and studies. ISS supported the proposal because the Humane Society sought risk disclosures rather than attempting to force change at the company, and because a large number of significant customers had announced plans to phase out the crates, he said.
The Humane Society withdrew the proposal before Tyson’s shareholder meeting, however, because Tyson agreed to urge more space for pregnant mother pigs in a January 2014 letter to its hog suppliers, according to Matthew Prescott, food policy director at the Humane Society. A Tyson spokesman said the letter “was not written to affect the pending shareholder proposal nor was it part of any agreement with HSUS.”
The backing of the Hormel proposal by both ISS and Glass Lewis “is a real embracing of the idea that how a company interacts with the world around it can be a material risk to business,” Mr. Prescott said.
So far, Hormel has shown few signs of engaging with the Humane Society, Mr. Prescott said, despite the Humane Society offering to withdraw the proposal in exchange for a private meeting on the matter.
A recommendation by ISS, the largest U.S. proxy adviser, sometimes can deliver big blocks of shares in contentious corporate elections. But even with the proxy advisers’ backing, the Hormel proposal faces a difficult path. About 49% of Hormel shares are owned by the Hormel Foundation, a nonprofit established by its founder’s son, steered by a committee that includes many former Hormel executives. Representatives of the foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Gestation crates have been among the most-controversial animal-welfare issues facing the food industry. And though many companies have sought to jettison their use, research is mixed on whether the sows’ welfare improves in group pens, according to scientists and veterinarians.
Farmers say they long have used the stalls because they prevent injuries among sows, which establish social hierarchies and can harm each other when competing for shared resources such as food. The crates make it easier to tailor individual meals and improve worker safety, they add. “Sows can be nasty,” said Janeen Salak-Johnson, professor and researcher of stress and behavior of food animals at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In the past proxy advisers generally haven’t waded deeply into animal-welfare debates. And animal welfare-themed shareholder proposals have failed to gain much traction among investors, with such proposals earning an average 2.3% of shares voted in 2014, down from 5.6% in 2009, according to data from ISS.
Advocates say that these proposals are worth filing even if they draw relatively few votes. Placing animal-rights issues in companies’ proxy statements makes more investors consider them as potential risk factors and can prompt management to meet with advocates to reach a mutually agreeable solution, advocacy groups say.
Mr. Prescott said, however, that securing a sizable portion of the vote could enable animal-rights activists to pitch similar proposals again at Hormel and other companies.
“It gives us a greater position from which to push,” he said.
A Conversation About Sow Housing & Recent Editorials
February 16, 2012 by Illinois Farm Families Blog
Last week, two Chicago newspapers ran editorials on McDonald's decision to require its pork suppliers to phase out gestation stalls. (You can find the original Chicago Tribune editorial here, and the Sun Times editorial here.) We know this is an important issue in our industry and we're eager to be a part of the conversation. Janeen Salak-Johnson, an expert on animal well-being and housing responded.
Response to Sun-Times Editorial by Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson
Animal Care Needs to Lead Sow Housing Decisions
As a mom, an animal lover and someone whose career has been focused on the well-being of animals, I understand and share the passion that people have related to making sure that farm animals are raised humanely. However, I am deeply disturbed by your recent editorial calling for the ban of gestation crates. It's absurd and irresponsible to claim that this veterinarian approved housing is torture to sows.
I am not a pork producer, I did not grow up on a farm and I have no financial interest in any particular sow housing system. I am a scientist and educator whose career is dedicated to improving the well-being of animals, while in the care of the farmers who raise them for food. I have a passion for educating students, developing future scientists and sustaining animal agriculture so that we can provide the best care for animals, while providing safe, affordable and quality food for the world.
The number one goal of those raising animals for food is to provide proper care for those animals. More specifically, I have devoted the past eight years of my research program to improving housing systems for pregnant pigs (sows). There are numerous ways to provide proper care for sows including gestation stalls. There are advantages and disadvantages to every housing system including gestation stalls, open pens, free access stalls or pasture. When it comes to providing care for the pregnant sow, one-size does not fit all.
Simply putting a sow in a group pen or out on pasture does not equate to improved well-being because more space DOES NOT equate to improved well-being, it's the quality of space not the quantity of space.
Let's be clear: McDonalds' decision to phase out the use of gestation stalls was a marketing decision based on consumer perceptions, not on the improved welfare of the animals. I know one cannot trump emotions with science, but it is my ethical obligation to do what is right.
I strongly believe that we should continue to look for ways to improve sow housing systems that, above everything else, improve sow well-being. Simply banning the use of gestation stalls does not translate to improved well-being of the sow. Stalls help farmers provide individual care to each sow, minimize stress and increase sow and worker safety.
My main concern on this issue is for the animal. Simply equating a human perception about a sow housing system with a decision to eliminate it does not guarantee an improvement in the well-being of that animal. If we want to feel better as a society for a victory for animal welfare, then let's make sure that it actually does improve it.
Janeen L Salak-Johnson, PhD
Associate Professor, Stress/Environmental Physiology & Well-being
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Salak-Johnson Laboratory of Immunophysiology & Behavior