ALTOONA––Goaded by repeated undercover video exposés of rough handling and alleged neglect of livestock, Tyson Foods beef supply chain manager Lora Wright on December 9, 2013 warned the Iowa Cattlemen Association’s annual convention in Altoona that Tyson will soon require beef and chicken suppliers to pass animal welfare audits.
“A third-party auditor will visit farms to ensure compliance, assessing how workers handle animals, whether animals have access to adequate food and water, and whether treatment is humane,” summarized Donnelle Eller of the Des Moines Register. “The requirements are driven by customers including McDonald’s and Whole Foods.” These are among the biggest buyers from the Tyson Foods group, which grossed $33.3 billion in sales in 2012.
The audits of cattle and chicken producers will be introduced about a year after Tyson introduced animal welfare audits of about 3,000 pig producers. But the audits of pig producers did not prevent Tyson from being embarrassed by the November 2013 release of undercover video made by a Mercy for Animals operative at West Coast Farms, a Tyson supplier in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma.
Made in September and October 2013, the Mercy for Animals video caught workers grabbing piglets by their hind legs and smashing their heads on concrete floors to kill them, and cutting off pigs’ tails and castrating them without anesthetic. These are standard pig farmng practices. The video also showed workers kicking pigs in the face; hitting pigs with boards and a bowling ball; and in one case a worker allegedly gouged a pig’s eye with his finger.
“We’re extremely disappointed by the mistreatment shown in the video and will not tolerate this kind of animal mishandling,” said Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson. “We are immediately terminating our contract with this farmer and will take possession of the animals remaining on the farm.”
“I was stunned that anyone could be that callous in their treatment of any animal,” West Coast Farms owner Lonnie Herring told NBC News. “After viewing the video, I immediately returned to my farm and terminated the employees seen in the video.”
But Mercy for Animals director of investigations Matt Rice told Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce that the unidentified undercover operative reported abuses to West Coast Farms management and ownership “multiple times,” without corrective action following.
National Pork Board vice president for science and technology Paul Sundberg defended the head-smashing to NBC News as “common industry practice” to kill piglets who seem unlikely to survive.
The American Veterinary Medical Association allows smashing piglets’ heads as “an effective way to euthanize nursing piglets…shown to cause immediate unconsciousness and rapid death when performed correctly on young piglets. It must be performed correctly,” the AVMA hedges, “so that it does cause immediate unconsciousness and rapid death.”
Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells expressed skepticism of the Tyson “Farm Animal Well-Being Advisory Panel” almost as soon as it was introduced.
“Earlier this year,” Wells wrote in June 2013, “ALDF filed a consumer protection complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Tyson Foods for misleading consumers with false and deceptive advertising. Not surprisingly, Tyson strategically modified their language to call gestation crates ‘individual housing,’ and stopped calling themselves a leader in animal welfare. Yet Tyson’s website still claims that their suppliers provide ‘favorable’ and ‘comfortable’ environments for pigs and chickens. Recently,” Wells reminded, “five Tyson supplier employees were convicted of criminal animal cruelty after an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States revealed the kicking and punching of pigs as well as abhorrent conditions for mother pigs. The discrepancy between Tyson’s public claims to be concerned with ‘animal well-being’ and the reality of animal cruelty behind closed doors gives us great reason to be skeptical about a Tyson-led ‘well-being’ panel.”
Whole Foods supplier
The value of industry-sponsored animal welfare audits was also called into question by video obtained by a Compassion Over Killing undercover investigator at the Bell & Evans chicken hatchery in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, released in October 2013. A supplier to Whole Foods Markets, “Bell & Evans has long presented itself as a pioneer in the natural and organic foods movement and says it raises its chickens on a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics,” observed Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele. “In 2010, Bell & Evans became one of two premium chicken producers in the country to start rendering chickens unconscious with carbon dioxide gas before killing them, lessening the animals’ pain.”
Bell & Evens advertises that “all of our chickens are humanely raised and compassionately handled, in a minimal-stress environment, throughout their lives,” and says newly hatched chicks are “carefully sorted from their shells, and placed in protective delivery baskets headed for the farm.”
“This was, obviously, not what we saw,” said Compassion Over Killing director Erica Meier. Instead, the video showed chicks being dropped on conveyor belts. Injured chicks were fed into a grinder.
“Consumers who are looking for cruelty-free meat need to know about this,” said Meier. “Anyone concerned with their meat being cruelty-free should recognize that animal cruelty is standard practice in this industry.”
The West Coast Farms and Bell & Evans videos were still in the news when Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing released undercover videos of cattle being roughly handled at the Wiese Brothers dairy farm in Wisconsin and the Quanah Cattle Company in Colorado.
A Mercy for Animals undercover operative worked at Wiese Brothers in October and November 2013, director of investigations Rice said.
“Clips show cows who can’t stand being dragged with ropes and heavy equipment or lifted with clamps. Workers whip, kick and stab other cows to get them moving. One animal bleeds from cuts in her side; another bleeds from her rear,” summarized M.L. Johnson of Associated Press.
Wiese Brothers co-owner Mark Wiese told Associated Press that he fired two workers and assigned another to duties that don’t involve handling animals after seeing the video, but too late to keep the Wiese milk supply contract with Foremost, thier biggest customer. “Foremost supplies cheese to DiGiorno,” the pizza giant, “which is owned by Nestle USA,” wrote Johnson. “Nestle said in a statement that it had asked Foremost Farms not to send it cheese made from Wiese Brothers Farm milk.”
The Compassion Over Killing undercover video brought misdemeanor cruelty charges against Quanah Cattle Company employees Larry Loma, 32, of Greeley; Ernesto Daniel Valenzuela-Alvarez, 34, of Eaton; and Tomas Cerda, 33, of Greeley.
The video showed calves only a few days old being “violently dragged by their legs, pulled by their ears, lifted by their tails, kicked, thrown, slammed and flipped,” summarized Compassion Over Killing.
Owned by J.D. Heiskell & Co., of Tulare, California, the Quanah Cattle Company bull calf feeding operation had only been in business for about a year.
“If this facility had been a slaughter plant,” said Colorado State University livestock handling expert Temple Grandin, “the USDA would have shut them down.”
“It’s quite evident, based on the video,” fellow Colorado State University Department of Animal Sciences faculty member Bill Wailes told Greeley Tribune reporter Eric Brown, “that these workers don’t know how to properly handle animals. And it obviously wasn’t explained to these workers why it’s important to handle them properly.”
But Compassion Over Killing investigator Taylor Radig was herself charged in connection with the case on November 22, 2013. The Weld County district attorney’s office dropped the charge against Radig on January 10, 2013.
Meanwhile, Radig was charged, said the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, because “The video was eventually provided to law enforcement by representatives of Compassion Over Killing approximately two months after Radig’s employment ended with Quanah Cattle Company…Radig’s failure to report the alleged abuse of the animals in a timely manner adheres to the definition of acting with negligence and substantiates the charge of animal Cruelty.”
ANIMALS 24-7 asked Compassion Over Killing on November 25, 2013 why the video was not promptly shared with law enforcement, after Radig was no longer in proximity to possible physical retaliation for having made the video. Receipt of the question was acknowledged by publicist Patricia Jones, but was not answered.
Compassion Over Killing alleged in a prepared statement that, “The charge against our investigator is unsupported by the law. It reeks of political motivation fueled by an agribusiness industry that is once again lashing out in desperation to stop undercover investigators from exposing the truth.”
Blogged Green Is The New Red author Will Potter, “The agriculture industry has been campaigning heavily for ‘ag-gag’ laws that would make it illegal to photograph or videotape animal abuse on factory farms The latest versions of these bills require investigators to turn over video footage to law enforcement immediately, and some of them would prohibit investigators from speaking with the press. These so-called “mandatory reporting” requirements—which are strikingly similar to what is at issue in this case—are intended to stop national animal welfare groups from documenting patterns of abuse. Such legislation was introduced in New Hampshire, Nebraska, Wyoming, Tennessee, California, and North Carolina this year—and failed in every state.”
But that still does not explain why the video was not shared with law enforcement after Radig was no longer working at the Quanah Cattle Company in a position to document patterns of abuse.
The USDA, meanwhile, documented patterns of abuse at the Brooksville Meat & Fabrication Center in Bracken County, Kentucky, and has repeatedly withdrawn inspectors from the facility without those patterns of abuse being lastingly corrected.
“Four times this year, the latest on October 9,” reported James Bruggers of the Louisville Courier-Journal, “the USDA cited the facility with violating regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act, which says livestock need to be rendered ‘insensible’ to pain before being slaughtered. In some cases, workers who were dispatching livestock with a 22-caliber gun were taking multiple shots and several minutes to kill the animals, with an inspector describing such actions as ‘egregious’ violations. Details about what the USDA inspectors saw are contained in reports available to anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone,” Bruggers added, offering the links. “Warning: they are disturbing and could turn people into vegetarians.”
The U.S. Department of Justice on November 27, 2013 announced a $3.1 final settlement of litigation originating with a 2008 HSUS video exposé of injured and ill cattle kicked, shocked and shoved with forklifts at the Westland Meat Company and Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, California.
“The parties [initially] settled the lawsuit for $155 million,” reported Associated Press, “but the Justice Department determined the defendants could only afford to pay a total of about $3.1 million because they were financially devastated by the recall” of meat that followed the release of the HSUS video. Altogether, 71,500 tons of beef were recalled, much of which had been sold to the USDA school lunch program.
Downed cattle may not be slaughtered for human consumption because they may be infected with diseases transmissible to humans, including “mad cow disease.”