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Expert panel says undercover video shows abuse at pig farm

WARNING: This video, shot by the advocacy group Mercy for Animals at a farm in Oklahoma, includes graphic and sometimes bloody scenes. It shows pigs being kicked, hit, and thrown, as well as pigs being slammed into the floor to kill them.

A panel of experts on the care of farm animals says that undercover video shot at an Oklahoma pig farm that supplied the nation’s largest meat producer shows “abuse and egregious misbehavior.” But one of the experts defended some practices seen in the video, saying that while the techniques are “not pleasant to see,” they are “acceptable” by industry standards. 

The video, shot by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals at West Coast Farms in Okfuskee County and obtained by NBC News, shows workers throwing, kicking, and hitting pigs, and slamming piglets into the ground to euthanize them. In the footage, which was shot in September and October, workers are also seen gouging the eyes of pigs, and one employee is shown vigorously shaking a piglet. 

After NBC News showed the video to Tyson Foods on Tuesday, the company discontinued its contract with West Coast Farms. The farm’s owner said that after he watched the video he terminated some employees because their actions were not within proper protocols. 

The Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit formed by the food industry, then convened a three-member panel of animal care specialists to review the Mercy for Animals footage. On Thursday, the panel members released statements condemning some of the actions seen on video.

“There’s abuse and egregious misbehavior by employees in their handling of the animals in this video,” said Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota. “What is especially concerning is that it appears to be a culture rather than being able to attribute the behavior to individuals.” 

Dr. Temple Grandin of the University of Northern Colorado said that she believed the workers “probably were not trained. If they were trained, it was very poor training.” 

“Poking pigs in the eye multiple times, violently shaking a young piglet, beating a sow with the edge of a board – these are things I rate as cruelty to animals,” said Grandin. 

Dr. Candace Croney of Purdue University said the behavior was “deeply disturbing” and “violate(d) every principle of humane animal handling.” 

The panel also said, however, that there were specific practices shown in the footage that might bother the viewer but were consistent with the way farmers operate.

“This video also shows common and acceptable production practices that are not pleasant to see, but there are valid reasons for using them on the farm,” said Deen.

Grandin said the piglet castration shown was “normal procedure,” and Deen said that some piglets who appeared to be alive as they paddled their legs after blunt force euthanasia were actually dead.

“In my experience, paddling is involuntary movement and can occur after successful euthanasia,” said Deen.

But Deen also noted that at least one piglet on a pile of dead piglets seemed to be breathing, and Croney said that the other behavior seen on screen led her to question “how well other procedures such as castration and blunt force trauma are performed.”

Grandin said she supported the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendation that farmers needing to euthanize piglets seek an alternative to manual blunt force trauma to the head.

Mercy for Animals

Undercover video shot by the advocacy group Mercy for Animals at West Coast Farms in Henryetta, Okla., allegedly shows workers hitting, throwing and kicking pigs.

In response the panel's conclusions, Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, said it was "common sense" to recognize that "beating, kicking, throwing and otherwise abusing animals is unacceptable and cruel."

"There is now also a clear consensus among animal welfare experts that the inhumane treatment of pigs documented at this Tyson pork supplier rises to the level of horrific cruelty," he said.

Gary Mickelson of Tyson Foods said the panel’s conclusions “echo our reasons for immediately terminating the contract.” Tyson, which owned the sows and boars, took possession of its animals. “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior, and expect the farmers who supply us, and the people who work for them, to treat animals with care,” said Mickelson.

Farm owner Lonnie Herring did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the panel’s findings. On Tuesday, he condemned the behavior seen on tape, said he had terminated employees, and vowed to improve care and oversight. However, he also defended the use of blunt force trauma to euthanize piglets, and said “someone who comes in with zero experience to a commercial hog farm is going to see things that they deem as cruel.”

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