A panel of farm animal care specialists created to analyze undercover video investigations at livestock farms has examined recently released video from a hog farm in Minnesota. The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) created the Animal Care Review Panel to engage recognized animal care specialists to examine video and provide expert perspectives for food retailers, the pork industry and the media.

The panel that examined the recent video that was captured and posted online by the group Mercy for Animals was comprised of Dr. Janice Swanson, Michigan State University; Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue University; and Dr. John Deen, University of Minnesota.

“There are far too many issues seen in this video, including the behaviors and attitudes of the caretakers, that are definitely not reflective of standard industry practice and that are just wrong,” said Croney.

“Employees seen in the video show high levels of frustration, impatience and attitudes reflecting either improper training in low-stress animal handling or a lack of reinforcing the expectation for the best practice of low-stress handling,” said Swanson.

“The procedures seen in this video, for the most part, were within the allowances established by the American Veterinary Medical Association and other groups,” said Deen. “What it comes down to is employee behavior, and that was problematic.”

Animal Handling

The video contains numerous scenes in which farm workers are seen tossing piglets through the air as they are moved from pen to pen. An employee is heard being asked by the undercover investigator if this practice is appropriate. The employee responds that it’s “not OK” but it’s common.

“The employee admits on camera that what he is doing is not correct – so the employee actually acknowledges he is not conducting proper handling,” said Swanson. “This leads one to believe training had taken place and the employee chose not to follow procedure and policy.”

Another segment shows an employee slamming an animal over the back with a device called a “sorting board or panel” which is used to help move animals through alleyways.

“That should never happen,” said Croney. “You can break the animal’s back. That’s egregious abuse in my opinion.”

In another scene, a number of piglets are seen in a wheeled tub, presumably to be moved to another area of the farm. While it’s common to move animals this way, the experts felt the animals were clearly overcrowded in this instance.

Facilities and Conditions

“The gestation stalls appear to be too small for some sows shown lying down,” said Swanson. “There also appear to be sources of piglet entrapment with respect to the flooring, stalls and other areas.”

“There’s one scene in which a piglet has its head caught in a floor slat,” said Deen. “Things can break and those things need to be fixed. It’s impossible to know from this video if the problem had just recently developed or if it had been that way for a long time.”

In another scene, a large number of young pigs are seen crowded into a single pen. The experts say it’s probable that the pigs were being held this way temporarily as they waited to be transported to another location.

“Even if it’s temporary, it’s not OK,” said Croney. “You should not have that many pigs being held together like that in such a tight space. It’s impossible to practice low stress handling and safe movement with that type of density. The animals are at risk of harming each other due to piling up or riding on top of each other in their efforts to move away.”

Another scene shows flies on the backs of sows as they stand in their stalls.

“Fly populations are endemic to barns and require control measures,” said Swanson.

“I didn’t think the number of flies seen in the video was an unacceptable situation,” said Deen. “It was July, after all, and it would require heavy use of insecticide to bring the level much lower.”

Another scene shows what appears to be an employee picking up a mass of maggots with a gloved hand.

“It’s difficult to determine the source of the maggot infestation in the video,” said Swanson. “If it’s from a dead piglet then it is an indicator that piglet mortality is not being adequately monitored and the dead pigs are not being removed frequently enough.”

“There are flies on farms and where there are flies there has to be maggots,” said Deen. “I didn’t see anything related to flies that would affect the welfare of the pigs on this farm.”

Deen felt a point of clarification was needed on the video’s depiction of sow gestation stalls.

“It is stated that stalls have been banned in a number of states and in the European Union,” said Deen. “In most instances, stalls haven’t actually been banned but their use is being reduced. Housing a sow in a gestation stall protects it during the early stage of the animals’ pregnancy and can also be used to protect sows that cannot compete in a group.”

Procedures

Employees are seen euthanizing young pigs using a method called “blunt force trauma.” It involves slamming an animal’s head against a concrete floor.

“It’s uncomfortable to watch,” said Deen. “Discussions are taking place on whether this should be an acceptable practice, not because of its efficacy, but because of its visual impact.”

“While I agree that blunt force trauma is brutal to watch, despite being effective if done correctly,” added Croney, “what is even more problematic than how it looks is the capacity for suffering by the animals if done improperly and the psychological risks to employees of being required to use this method. It is paradoxical to ask employees to provide compassionate care and also to kill, especially in such a fashion. Worse, when employees show the types of abusive attitudes evident in this video, the concern that is raised is whether doing this type of procedure worsens indifference to animals. This issue deserves more attention.”

The video claims some pigs appear to still be alive after blunt force trauma was administered but the experts say it is likely involuntary movement.

“Piglets appear to be rendered irreversibly unconscious,” said Swanson. “Severe brain trauma, which this method induces, will cause the nervous system to react as death occurs. Although the procedure is conditionally acceptable, a concern is the ability of a caretaker to perform the procedure repeatedly and each time render the piglet unconscious instantly with no chance of suffering. ”

“The problem on this farm appears not to be how euthanasia is being carried out but the lack of timely euthanasia,” said Deen. “Pigs were seen in this video that should have already been euthanized. There are situations where pigs have irreversible health issues and euthanasia is the humane thing to do.”

The castration and tail docking seen in the video appear to be done using acceptable methods, according to Deen, who also spoke about scenes showing pigs with wounds and lesions.

“Wounds like these do occur on farms,” said Deen. “We can’t tell from the video whether these are isolated cases or if it’s widespread. We also can’t tell whether they have been treated with an analgesic, but that would be the appropriate thing to do.”

Employee Attitude and Knowledge

“There was unacceptable handling of animals seen in this video,” said Deen. “It appears to me this farm is struggling with creating an environment that allows workers to discipline each other and to create an expectation of better animal handling.”

“There seems to be a major lack of recognition that these are sentient animals that can suffer,” added Croney. “It’s not enough to train caretakers to just be animal technicians. They must have a level of compassion and understanding that what they do to animals matters to them and it should matter to us.”

Hidden camera investigations at livestock farms have heightened public attention on animal care issues. In an effort to foster a more balanced conversation and to provide credible feedback to promote continuous improvement in farm animal care, CFI created the Animal Care Review Panel.

The Panel operates independently. Its reviews, assessments, recommendations and reports will not be submitted to the pork industry for review or approval. CFI’s only role is to facilitate the review process and release the panel’s findings.

About the Experts

Dr. Janice Swanson, Michigan State University
Dr. Janice Swanson coordinates outreach, teaching and research in the area of farm animal behavior and welfare with a focus on social responsibility at Michigan State University. She serves as the chair of the Animal Sciences Department. Her scientific service includes government, industry and scientific animal welfare advisory. Dr. Swanson received her PhD in Applied Animal Ethology from the University of Maryland and her masters and baccalaureate degrees from the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue University
Dr. Candace Croney is a renowned expert in applied animal behavior, with an emphasis on animal learning, welfare and ethics. She is an associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University. She has contributed to nationwide animal welfare efforts working with organizations such as the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and many others. She is on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the American Humane Certified program, and her research on farm animal cognition has been featured in national and international broadcast programs.

Dr. John Deen, University of Minnesota
Dr. John Deen is a professor in veterinary epidemiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.  His work in research, teaching and extension has been in welfare, epidemiology and economics, focusing on measurement and optimization across competing needs in pig farming. He provides training to farmers, veterinarians, and veterinary students. Dr. Deen is also project lead with USAID in reducing the threats of spread of disease from animals to humans, particularly in central Africa and Southeast Asia. He earned his DVM and PhD from the University of Guelph and gained board certification in swine health management from the American College of Veterinary Practitioners in 1994.