The latest undercover video of livestock abuse in Iowa alleges mistreatment of pigs at a confinement facility near Kamrar in central Iowa. But a veterinarian for Iowa Select Farms, which owns the confinement facility and a number of others in the state, responded by saying they believe the video was staged.
Mercy for Animals, a Chicago-based animal rights group, showed the video to reporters at a June 29 press conference in Des Moines. Mercy for Animals executive director Nathan Runkle, at the press conference, said the video was a display of what he called "shocking cruelty" toward sows and their piglets.
Mercy for Animals objects to practices such as sows being confined in crates and castrations of baby pigs being performed without the use of painkillers. Runkle said livestock "deserve to be treated in the same way as our dogs and cats, whom we love as pets."
Some parts of video have been edited to make it look like animal abuse
Howard Hill, a veterinarian with Iowa Select Farms, responded: "We certainly want to treat our livestock humanely. But they are not pets. There is a difference."
Hill is also a member of the National Pork Producers Council board of directors. He says, "Whenever one of these videos comes out, we're disappointed, because often they depict the hog industry in a very poor light. And it really does not depict what hard-working, honest pork producers are doing day-to-day. This video does not reflect our policies and the standards we hold our people to for animal welfare and animal handling."
He points out that some of the images on the video are standard procedures that are used in the pork industry. And in some parts, the video has been edited to make it appear that the animals are being abused.
Iowa Select Farms is investigating the allegations of animal abuse
Iowa Select is investigating the allegations made in the video, which shows pigs with bloody sores and ruptured intestines. The video is posted on the Internet and shows film footage of "sows confined in crates barely larger than their own bodies, and piglets thrown across rooms, slammed headfirst into the ground and having their testicles ripped out and tails cut off, all without the use of painkillers."
That's how the video describes what viewers are watching as they view it. "We have some evidence that the video may have been staged," says Hill.
Iowa State University animal researcher Ann Johnson has been retained by Iowa Select Farms to investigate the charges. "If this independent review determines that we can make improvements to our animal welfare program and the training we provide to our employees, then we will make such improvements," says Hill.
Iowa Select already trains its employees on animal welfare rules
Hill says if employees of Iowa Select Farms are found to be violating the company's animal welfare policies, "they will be disciplined, including termination of employment."
He points out that gestation crates are used to give sows individual space to avoid aggression by other sows. "The gestation crate issue is different from other issues raised by the video," he says. The video was shot secretly by a female employee from Michigan who began working for Iowa Select in April at the Kamrar facility, but she left abruptly in June without giving notice.
A bill was proposed in the Iowa Legislature earlier this year which would prohibit undercover videos from being made in Iowa. It would make it illegal for a person to apply for and get a job with a company under false pretenses, just to gain access to a facility to shoot a video or take pictures. The bill passed the Iowa House in March but never made it out of the Senate. The bill wasn't voted on by the Iowa Senate and thus died when the 2011 session ended. The Legislature will likely take the matter up again in the 2012 session. The bill is called the "Agriculture Fraud Bill" by its supporters and the "Ag Gag Bill" by opponents.
Iowa lawmakers will debate the "Ag Fraud Bill" again next year
"That video and others like it have been made by undercover people who sign up to work in livestock buildings. The real reason they're working there is to get inside and secretly shoot the pictures," says Senator Tom Reilly, D-Oskaloosa.
Reilly adds, "The group Mercy for Animals brought in a person to the Kamrar facility under false pretenses. The group is staging an event and creating a salacious image to try to put the livestock industry in a bad light."
Mercy for Animals unveiled the video at news conferences last week in four cities: Des Moines, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Seattle. Those are headquarters for four grocery chains that Mercy for Animals is targeting. The group uses undercover videos and recordings to generate public outrage over modern livestock production practices.
One of "Mercy for Animals" members secretly recorded the video
Iowa Select Farms is one of the nation's largest hog producers, with operations scattered throughout the state of Iowa. Iowa Select houses up to 160,000 sows in 43 counties in Iowa and has more than 900 workers. It is Iowa's largest producer of hogs.
Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, acknowledged that one of his organization's members secretly recorded the video between April and June of 2011 at the Iowa Select Farms operation at Kamrar.
Runkle says his organization plans to use the recordings to put pressure on large grocery chains to try to get them to stop buying pork from farms that use hog production practices which Mercy for Animals considers abusive. Prior to the news conferences last week the group sent letters to officials of Costco, HyVee, Kroger and Safeway and provided links to the 2.5 minute video, and then asked the grocery companies to stop buying pork from Iowa Select Farms.
This animal rights group is putting pressure on grocery stores
"We are looking at grocery chains that are buying pork that comes from this hog production facility at Kamrar. We want the chains to ask the hog producers to implement stronger animal welfare policies," Runkle said. "The grocery companies have a responsibility to make sure the meat, milk and eggs that appear on their store shelves come from animals that are not mistreated."
Hill, a veterinarian as well as director of external affairs for Iowa Select, says Iowa Select is looking into the allegations but believes the recording gives an inaccurate picture of the hog operation. He says he's found such undercover videos to be unfair.
"We feel that pork producers are hard working, honest people and they don't deserve this kind of undocumented journalism, if you want to call it journalism," says Hill. "It's not that you are innocent until you are proven guilty. In this case you are considered guilty immediately because this video goes on YouTube, and, of course, everybody wants to believe what they see."
Promoting vegetarianism also part of agenda of Mercy for Animals
Runkle, like the woman member of his organization who secretly recorded the video while working at the Iowa Select Farms facility, is a vegetarian. On the Mercy for Animals website the group has a statement that says part of its goal is to encourage people to eat less meat or to stop eating meat completely.
John Mabry, director of the Swine Industry Center at Iowa State University in Ames, questions the credibility of undercover videos. He also says Mercy for Animals' plan to put pressure on individual companies might be effective. If the group can impact even one grocery chain, they can impact a lot of consumers. This approach they are taking is another way, a new way, for the animal rights group to try to accomplish what they've set out to do. That is, to sway public opinion against certain practices being used in modern livestock production.
Packer won't buy pork coming from Iowa Select hog farm at Kamrar
On July 1 it was announced that Iowa Select Farms sow farm at Kamrar will no longer be a supplier to JBS Swift, a packing company at Marshalltown, which has sold finished pork to several major retail grocery chains, including Hy-Vee of West Des Moines and Costco.
JBS Swift confirmed on July 2 that is has suspended purchases of pork that originate from the Kamrar facility, although JBS will continue to buy hogs from Iowa Select of Iowa Falls. "We will not resume purchases of pork produced by the Kamrar facility until we have third-party verification of their compliance with requirements for proper, responsible and humane animal handling," says JBS spokeswoman Margaret McDonald.
Howard Hill, the veterinarian for Iowa Select, said on July 1 his company has placed two employees on unpaid leave, pending an investigation of the allegations made on the video. The Kamrar confinement houses about 4,000 of Iowa Select's 157,000 sows.