Nearly 15 percent of pre-weaned piglets die each year. According to U.S. pork producers, many are crushed by sows (adult female pigs). Modifying the sows’ stalls or crates may help reduce piglet deaths. The first step, according to ARS agricultural engineer Tami Brown-Brandl, is to evaluate sow and piglet behavior in their stalls. Animal behavior contains vital clues about health and well-being that producers can use to better manage their livestock.
Brown-Brandl and a team of scientists from China, Iowa Select Farms and Iowa State University developed a system to automatically process and analyze 3-D images of sows. A camera mounted over birthing crates captures images to determine a sow’s behavior and posture: if she’s eating, drinking, standing, sitting, or lying down.
The system, which accurately classifies behavior, could potentially help prevent sows from crushing their piglets, according to Brown-Brandl, who works at ARS’s Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.
This technology allows swine producers to better monitor their pigs and determine whether management adjustments, such as changes in crate size or pen arrangement, are needed, Brown-Brandl adds. The data could also help producers locate sick animals more quickly.
The video also appears to show pigs with puss-filled abscesses being sent down the line. Others are covered in feces.
“If the USDA is around, they could shut us down,” says a worker, wearing a bright yellow apron, standing over the production line.
The graphic video — available on YouTube in an edited form — was covertly filmed by a contracted employee of Compassion Over Killing, a nonprofit animal rights group that claims to have infiltrated an Austin, Minn., facility run by Quality Pork Processors (QPP), a supplier of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam and other popular processed meats. The group has turned over the 97-minute unedited video to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has raised serious concerns about the conditions at the QPP facility and pledged a thorough investigation. A reporter has also seen the full-length video provided by the group.
“The actions depicted in the video under review are appalling and completely unacceptable, and if we can verify the video’s authenticity, we will aggressively investigate the case and take appropriate action,” said USDA spokesman Adam Tarr, adding that the agency can’t comment definitively in the middle of the probe.
QPP, which has seen both the edited and unedited versions, says the edited film makes it look as though there were violations when, in fact, there were none.
“Early on, there may very well be contamination present in the process, but we have multiple interventions that ensure that it will not only be visually removed, but completely removed,” said Nate Jansen, who is the vice president of human resources and quality services at QPP. “Had it been allowed to show the entire sequence of these events, all of these hogs were all handled appropriately.”
To gain access to the QPP facility, the Compassion Over Killing contractor applied for five months for jobs at meat processing companies and was eventually hired at QPP. Compassion Over Killing requested the person’s name not be disclosed because he still works at QPP, but showed a pay stub indicating employment there. The person did not describe on his job applications his affiliation with the activist group.
“I don’t think you can look at the video along with the USDA guidelines and say that QPP is following the law,” said Ted Genoways, the author of “The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food,” and has seen the video but is not associated with the group. “This plant is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the meat industry.”
In particular, the video shines a light on a government-approved pilot program, known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which allows processors like QPP to assume more responsibility over the inspection process.
The company is one of five pork processors participating in the HIMP program, which the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) first launched in the late 1990s. As part of the initiative, the government substantially changed the way it oversees meat production, more than doubling the number of safety checks (from 11 to 24) within a facility and reallocating government inspectors to focus more closely on food safety. The goal, as stated on the agency’s Web site, was to “produce a flexible, more efficient, fully integrated” system.
In the HIMP inspection model, three government inspectors are stationed on the production line, compared to the usual seven who oversee the handling of carcasses in the traditional system. In both, an additional offline inspector is free to move around. The reduction in government inspectors dedicated to checking hogs on the line has allowed the government to save money by reducing its inspection force. It has also allowed plants to increase their line speed — on average, participants in the pilot program process roughly 120 extra hogs per hour, according to the USDA.
The USDA speaks highly of the program, which it has repeatedly defended. “Obviously, we believe that the model is an appropriate one,” said Phil Derfler, the deputy administrator at FSIS. “That’s why we went ahead with the rule-making in order to adopt it — it’s an improvement on the traditional system.”
But Lisa Winebarger, who serves as a legal counsel to Compassion Over Killing and helped bring the investigation to the USDA, said QPP is violating those directives.
“I understand that QPP is denying any wrongdoing, but we can assure you that much of what we have documented are serious problems labeled as ‘egregious inhumane treatment’ and ‘egregious noncompliances'” by the government’s directives, she said.
Nigel Morris of The Independent reports that UK Ministers are under pressure to respond to growing public discontent about religious slaughter after an undercover investigation exposed the horrific mistreatment of animals at a halal abattoir.
Secretly filmed footage which appears to show abattoir workers repeatedly hacking at sheep’s throats, hurling them into solid structures and kicking them in the face has intensified demands for a complete ban on the religious slaughter of animals without stunning them first.
Four slaughtermen at the North Yorkshire abattoir have had their operating licences suspended by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) after a catalogue of apparent brutality was caught on camera. The footage shows animals being treated with “gratuitous violence and contempt”, according to the charity Animal Aid, which carried out the investigation.
The film emerged days after a petition demanding that slaughter without pre-stunning be outlawed passed the 100,000 mark, adding pressure on political leaders to bring in fresh curbs on inhumane practices in abattoirs.
The Government has said it has no intention of introducing new controls on the production of halal or kosher meat, a line that David Cameron repeated during a recent visit to Israel. Animals are meant to be stunned before they are killed, but there are exemptions for Muslim and Jewish producers.
The covert filming at the Bowood Lamb abattoir in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, appears to show workers hacking and sawing at throats in contravention of Islamic practice, which requires animals to be killed with one clean sweep of a knife. In one instance it took five attempts to sever blood vessels.
The petition calling for an end to non-stun slaughter has been championed by the British Veterinary Association, which has warned ministers that they “simply cannot ignore the strength of public feeling” over animal welfare.
Following an account by Michael Moss in the N.Y. Times last week, a Times editorial says the little-known U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, financed by American taxpayers, which employs the sophisticated tools and scientific expertise of modern animal management — apparently without a conscience.
The details Mr. Moss’s article exposes are sickening. In engineering animals to maximize industry’s bottom line, the center, at a sprawling, secluded site in Nebraska, has created pigs that bear freakishly large litters of frail piglets, which are often crushed by their mothers. Cows give birth to triplets, many of them deformed. Lambs are born in open fields, where they starve, are eaten by predators and are overcome by the elements. These so-called easy-care sheep are bred to eliminate the need for shelters and human help at birthing time.
(Reuters has reported that the secretary of agriculture, in the wake of Mr. Moss’s article, has directed the agency to create a new animal welfare plan, which will involve employee training and a review of research practices.)
The humans who work at the center are not necessarily oblivious to its failings. Some veterinarians and researchers told The Times they were appalled by the suffering and abuse. They should not have their consciences degraded by what is supposed to be beneficial work. Congress founded the center 50 years ago. It should oversee it and reform it — or shut it down.
Michael Moss of the NY Times writes that at a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.
There are, however, some complications.
Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.
Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop “easy care” sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation.
Last Mother’s Day, at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend’s toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes.
“It’s horrible,” one veterinarian said, tossing the remains into a barrel to be dumped in a vast excavation called the dead pit.
These experiments are not the work of a meat processor or rogue operation. They are conducted by a taxpayer-financed federal institution called the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles in Clay Center, Neb. Little known outside the world of big agriculture, the center has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.
Since Congress founded it 50 years ago to consolidate the United States Department of Agriculture’s research on farm animals, the center has worked to make lamb chops bigger, pork loins less fatty, steaks easier to chew. It has fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.
But an investigation by The New York Times shows that these endeavors have come at a steep cost to the center’s animals, which have been subjected to illness, pain and premature death, over many years. The research to increase pig litters began in 1986; the twin calves have been dying at high rates since 1984, and the easy care lambs for 10 years.
The center’s parent agency, the Agriculture Department, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories. But it does not closely monitor the center’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.
As a result, the center — built on the site of a World War II-era ammunition depot a two-hour drive southwest of Omaha, and locked behind a security fence — has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.
“They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare,” said James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years. “And it probably looks fine to them because they’re not thinking about it, and they’re not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things that the center has done.”
Dr. Keen approached The Times a year ago with his concerns about animal mistreatment. The newspaper interviewed two dozen current and former center employees, and reviewed thousands of pages of internal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
That reporting shows that the center’s drive to make livestock bigger, leaner, more prolific and more profitable can be punishing, creating harmful complications that require more intensive experiments to solve. The leaner pigs that the center helped develop, for example, are so low in fat that one in five females cannot reproduce; center scientists have been operating on pigs’ ovaries and brains in an attempt to make the sows more fertile.
There are many rhetorical flourishes available to advance a particular viewpoint, but they all crumble if the data is wrong.
Mike Baker of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) International cites a report by his group in the Huffington Post that allegedly found “the tendency to rear animals in confined indoor spaces, using selective breeds and intensive management methods to dramatically increase production to satisfy voracious consumer demand for meat and other animal products is putting human health in serious danger. … The report illustrates how intensive farming practices are increasing the risk of these dangerous bacteria in our food chain, as stressed animals become more susceptible to infection.”
It’s one of those arguments which leave the brain comfortably numb; it seems so intuitive, it must be true.
Here’s the nosestretcher: in comparing the intensive methods of cattle rearing in the U.S. with the more bucolic practices in the UK — birthplace of mad cow disease and mushy peas — Baker says “the U.S. has around 73,000 human cases a year, compared to fewer than 1,000 in England and Wales, a significant difference even when the population discrepancy is taken into account.”
Yes, it’s a significant difference, because Baker is comparing estimated cases of E. coli O157:H7 in the U.S. with actual cases of E. coli O157:H7 in the U.K. There are about 500 confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 annually in the U.S. Throw in other shiga-toxin producing E. coli and the numbers are higher.
The UK Health Protection Agency stated in 2011, “In the UK the most common form of E. coli is the O157 strain, with the majority of outbreaks linked to open farm visits where children may have been in contact with animals such as sheep, goats, cattle or their environments.”
The use of closed circuit television or some form of video surveillance is increasingly being used to monitor animal welfare procedures at slaughterhouses – who wants to be held hostage by the last plant hire who may be recording stuff for an activist group – and is starting to be used to enhance food safety techniques.
Australia has a significant business involving life animal export for overseas slaughter.
The Brisbane Times reports that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has written to the Australian Livestock Exporters Council offering to pay for cameras on export boats and approved international slaughterhouses in a bid to stamp out cruelty.
The trade has been plagued by frequent revelations of inhumane treatment of animals.
The group’s director of campaigns, Jason Baker, wrote to the livestock council chief executive Alison Penfold with the offer to ”pay to install and monitor surveillance cameras on each ship that transports animals from Australia to be slaughtered overseas as well as in all the slaughterhouses approved by the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System’.’
Under the plan the footage would be available on the Internet on a live stream. He said video would also make it easier to identify and attend to animals that become sick or injured on board the ships.
”If there is nothing to hide, why not let the public see what life is like for animals on live-export ships?” Mr Baker wrote.
Ms Penfold said the matter was one for individual export supply chain participants. She said a focus on training and support was ”the best investment to changing practices and behaviors towards livestock and will deliver lasting improvements to animal welfare outcomes.”
An interminable proverbial snag linked with our industry has been the unwillingness to be transparent. Keeping all communication channels wide-open is always the prudent passageway for companies to take.
Full and unabridged transparency, indelibly evinces a company’s veracity and intent to run ones business within defined demarcation lines of legality and integrity.
An adopted full transparency stance projects to the PETA’s of the world, including the susceptible public, that when egregious acts to livestock occur – and they do – that it’s going to be corrected in a timely manner with future preventive actions planned, documented and executed in order to preclude a similar occurrence in the future.
Cut! Case closed. That’s a take.
I like video cameras at meat and poultry plants.
That is, if a company makes it a policy to share video footage.
Video cameras are an exceptional all-around deterrent as well as a useful tool for plant security, occupational safety, human resources, quality assurance, production efficacy, HACCP and SSOP Systems, and the humane handling of livestock.
I’ve written in the past how the USDA can shut down slaughter plants entire operations in a nanosecond with leaving no recourse for the establishment to stay open.
If a slaughter company has video cameras in place, their recordings could help preclude a plant closure, truncate NR’s, while making the USDA inspector think 3 or 4 times on her/his sometimes subjective call involving egregious treatment of livestock.
If a slaughter company is equipped with video cameras and they really want to claim fame to having the USDA’s proclaimed robust humane handling program, then sharing video footage from the continuum of receiving livestock to the shackling and sticking stages of a slaughter HACCP flow chart is a must.
Like it or not, video cameras in one form, (smart phones) or another, (hidden fiber-optic cameras) are here to stay. They’re never going away.
Ask PETA or HSUS’ Oscar winning undercover cameramen, (and women) under the category of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir cinematography if they’d like your company having well-managed video cameras.
They don’t. It’s the last thing they want.
But if you do have video cameras, and you fail to share your video recordings, then you’re doing precisely what they’re hoping you’d do. You’re promulgating suspicion that you’re hiding something.
Today, many food folks are held hostage by their worst employees, agenda-oriented foodies, and their own stupidity.
Whether it’s a restaurant inspection, a farm, a slaughterhouse, provide that data to the public; I don’t care who does it, as long as it’s open to public scrutiny by mere mortals. Sorta what Jefferson was getting at when he said,
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”