A Cagey, Albeit Enlightening Week

Two separate but related events that occurred last week are already generating noteworthy ripple effects across the retail meat buyer/seller communities, and are virtually guaranteed to intensify in importance during the next round of contractual negotiations set to unfold between the two parties in the weeks and months ahead.

And though the two issues at play were at once both admirable and distrubing, the timing of their arrivals occurred at a fortuitous juncture for a national supermarket chain to proactively take a bold stance with its future pork sourcing strategies before being called upon by a third party to do so.

I’m referring, of course, to: 1) Safeway’s pledge to phase out the use of gestation crates for pigs and strive to shift as much of its pork-purchasing policies as soon as possible to suppliers that support humane practices; and 2) the alarming footage captured in yet another undercover video depicting animal cruelty on a swine farm in Wyoming by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Cast against the backdrop of one of the most complex times for retail meat trading partners, gestation stalls are one of many pivotal supply chain issues that have come under fire in recent years by consumer and activist groups largely revolving around animal husbandry practices.

With this the case, Safeway says it’s been working vigorously over the past several years to procure pork from producers that have made commitments to decrease gestation stalls in their breeding facilities, and is now poised to adopt the policy to the full extent possible.

“It is Safeway's goal to have a gestation stall-free supply chain," said Safeway VP of public affairs Brian Dowling, noting that the Pleasanton, Calif.-based supermarket chain is formulating plans to determine how it can best reach that goal by supporting the efforts of suppliers that have committed to reductions in their use of gestation stalls.

On the heels of Safeway's decision to move away from gestation crates came applause from HSUS, which called the move “encouraging news,” particularly in light of the “the scope and quantity of pork products” sold by the chain, and which signals “an important step in addressing animal welfare in the company's supply chain."

On a related note, Burger King Corp. in late April pledged that all of its eggs and pork will come from cage-free chickens and pigs by 2017. In releasing its new procurement strategy, Burger King’s chief branding and ops officer, Jonathan Fitzpatrick, was succinct and to the point: “…We continue to leverage our purchasing power to ensure the appropriate and proper treatment of animals by our vendors and suppliers…that support meaningful standards of humane treatment in our U.S. supply chain.”

While other food retailers are already being called upon to follow Safeway’s lead to sever ties with suppliers that use breeding crates, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) issued a statement from its president, R.C. Hunt, on the move, which notes that America's hog farmers are "committed to providing safe, affordable and healthful foods for consumers, using industry practices that have been designed with input from veterinarians and other animal care experts.

"With regard to Safeway's decision to give preference to pork suppliers who phase out individual sow housing," continued Hunt, "the National Pork Producers Council is concerned that similar actions taken by governments -- or other restaurant or grocery chains -- have increased production costs and consumer prices. These actions have forced some hog farmers out of business or caused them to reduce operations, with no demonstrable health benefits to sows.”

Noting its support of animal husbandry positions taken by the aforementioned veterinary group, NPPC argues that no set standard should be imposed on the industry by activist organizations, because there are numerous ways to provide proper care for sows.and in turn, no scientific consensus on what gestation house method is best because each has inherent advantages and disadvantages that must be considered by an individual farmer.

Nevertheless, NPPC declared the practices depicted in the latest video as "abhorrent to U.S. pork producers" and condemned such actions, "which are not in accord with the U.S. pork industry's best practices that are exemplified in its 'Pork Quality Assurance Plus' program. Providing humane and compassionate care for their pigs at every stage of life is one of the ethical principles to which U.S. pork producers adhere,” according to NPCC, which said the “individuals responsible for willful abuse of animals must be held accountable."

In a blog released in conjunction with the undercover pork farm video,

Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, decried NPPC's claim that its self-policing works in view of a scenario that he says finds "time and again our investigators uncovering unspeakable cruelty in a broken system."

Capping the controversy came the opinions of an expert Animal Care Review Panel assembled by the Center of Food Integrity to analyze the latest installment of undercover video investigations at livestock farms. The independent panel -- made up of such animal well-being experts as Colorado State University’s renowned Dr. Temple Grandin, Purdue University’s Dr. Candace Croney and University of Minnesota’s Dr. John Deen -- called the animal mistreatment at the Wyoming hog farm "unacceptable and indefensible."

Their report follows:

"There's definitely abusive animal handling shown in that video," said Grandin. "Kicking and throwing piglets? This farm definitely has management issues. A well-run operation would not be doing these kinds of things."

"This video was an incredibly disturbing, saddening and horrific example of the worst kind of animal handling," said Croney. "What I saw is the antithesis of every professional standard for animal care and handling published in any industry guideline or any certification program. I cannot imagine that anyone in the swine industry who considers themselves a responsible actor could support what is seen in that video. The handling of the animals shown is scientifically and morally indefensible."

"It's unacceptable," said Deen. "It's not consistent with handling practices in training programs that have been created and with expectations by the farming community. The actions seen in this video are abusive to the pigs and unacceptable to society as a whole. "

Croney cited specific instances of animals being kicked, and piglets being picked up by one ear and tossed significant distances as examples of unacceptable animal care. Deen cited a scene showing a sow unable to get to a water source as an example of the need for timely and humane euthanasia. Grandin noted veterinary care should have been provided a sow seen with a necrotic prolapse.

The experts noted the video was comprised of brief excerpts and that being allowed to view unedited footage might possibly have allowed them to place the case in better context.

"But there is no context I can think of that would make the egregious handling seen in this video acceptable," said Croney. "If what is captured in this video is an accurate portrayal of what's going on at this farm, there are so many different people complicit in abusive handling that it strongly suggests there is a culture in this particular facility of absolute indifference to the animals. It totally contradicts all the hard work and efforts of those in the industry who are committed to providing quality animal care. That kind of attitude has to be corrected from the top down. They need to look very carefully at what's happening on their farm -- who they're selecting to work there, what sort of education they're offering their people, and make a concerted effort to correct all of the problems that were clearly evident in that video."

"I'm not making excuses for this farm, because we've got to do a better job," said Deen. "But sometimes when these farms are in remote locations, it's difficult to have people who recognize pig farming as a complex and responsible activity. Hog farm workers need to understand right from wrong, and when they see things that aren't consistent with good animal care, they need to let somebody know."

Grandin noted that undercover video obtained from an Iowa hog farm that was reviewed by the panel in February didn't show any animal mistreatment.

"That farm obviously has worked with their employees on the proper way to handle pigs," said Grandin. "The owners of this facility need to get much better management."

For more information on the report and its expert panel, visit CFI's website.

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