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Expert panel probes Colorado hog farm undercover video

Seaboard Foods responded to animal cruelty allegations. 

Seaboard Foods fired seven workers for improper treatment of pigs on three company’s Colorado farms. The complaint was submitted to the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office by an animal rights group that captured the “rough handling” of pigs on an undercover video.

Seaboard’s actions were based on the findings from a comprehensive internal investigation after authorities from Phillips County, Colo., notified the company of the allegations. Seaboard maintains a zero-tolerance policy for improper animal handling.

In a media statement, Seaboard stated “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 further explained that the former workers did not use the sorting board and rattle cans in accordance to Seaboard’s Proper Animal Handling standards based on the National Pork Board’s Transport Quality Assurance program.

“Although we’re confident this is an isolated incident and only involved a few former employees, we are serious about taking action to ensure the proper treatment of pigs raised for food on our farms,” said Seaboard.

Impartial review

An independent Animal Care Review Panel, created by the Center for Food Integrity, examined the video filmed at the Colorado hog farms. The expert panel was comprised of Temple Grandin, Ph.D. - Colorado State University; Janeen Salak-Johnson, Ph.D. - University of Illinois; and Tom Burkgren, DVM - executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

Improper handling

In the video, the farm employees were shown using sorting boards and shakers to move hogs from a barn. Many times the panels and shakers (rattle cans) were used to strike the animals.

All three experts agreed that tools designed to smoothly move pigs were inappropriately used. The animal handling devices should not be used to strike an animal.

Grandin, a well-known animal behavior expert, said “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.”

As acknowledge by Seaboard, the tools were not used in accordance to the industry’s proven practices.

“That’s not how those tools are supposed to be used,” Burkgren said. “It’s disappointing that it appears these workers have forgotten their training. That’s really a counterproductive way to move pigs.”

Additionally, Grandin explained that the workers were also moving too large of a group at once.

“They were also trying to move too many pigs at a time,” Grandin added. “The research is very clear; if you’re loading out market-sized hogs you should be moving them four or five animals at a time. It appeared they were trying to move them in groups of nine or 10. That’s too big of a group and it is one of the causes of the rough handling.”

Still, the creators of the video suggested certain brief clips of other animal handling practices were acts of animal cruelty.

Euthanasia

In one segment of the video, a hog is seen being euthanized with a captive bolt gun. In addition, the narrator states the animal is being euthanized because it is not growing fast enough.

“There are a wide variety of non-recoverable conditions in pigs where euthanasia is the humane option,” Burkgren said.

Salak-Johnson added, “We don’t know that it was euthanized because it wasn’t growing fast enough.”

Nevertheless, the experts said the procedure was carried out properly and in a form of euthanasia accepted by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“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,” Grandin said. “The animal has been rendered senseless and there is no pain or suffering.”

Crowded conditions

The narrator also stated “Pigs are crowded in metal and concrete pens. They can barely move without pushing and climbing over other animals.”

However, the clip of the crowded pen was very short and not clearly explained. After viewing the footage, Burkgren clarified the pigs are mostly likely in a temporary holding pen prior to loading.

“It’s not uncommon to hold pigs temporarily in a pen like this before loading them into the truck,” Burkgren said. “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.”

The animal rights group, responsible for the filming and editing of the video, suggested pigs biting the metal bars of the pen were “a sign of serious metal collapse”. According to the Animal Care Review Panel, this claim is not based on scientific evidence.

“There is no scientific evidence to support that comment,” Johnson said. “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,” Burkgren said. “Experts look at this not as just a sign that the pigs are in distress. Pigs are curious animals and explore their environment with their mouths. If a pig is in a pasture it will find a stick and chew on it. It’s real common for pigs to pick up stones and chew on them. Many experts refer to this as ‘oral/nasal/facial’ behavior and it is not necessarily indicative of poor psychological health. It’s a narrow-minded view to lump this behavior into some kind of psychological category.”

The CFI’s Animal Care Review Panel operates independently. Its 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. The complete comments about this video and information on the experts can be viewed here.

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