Three years ago, floodwaters engulfed Iowa and swept hundreds of pigs down the Mississsippi River, sparking a rescue effort that moved over 60 survivors to new lives on sanctuaries. Last week Iowa's levees burst again, and its pigs took the national spotlight once more, to tell a different story.
A hard-to-watch undercover video from the Chicago-based group Mercy for Animals (MFA) was released on June 29, showing live piglets getting sliced, slammed and thrown across a building in a small Iowa town.
A former Iowa Pork Princess became the unwitting star, by assuring the undercover camerawoman that “pigs are very bouncy,” and then describing their flights through the air as “a rollercoaster ride for piglets.”
The facility is part of Iowa Select Farms, one of the nation's largest pork producers, which sells pigs to one of the world's largest meat processors, JBS Swift. At JBS, the pigs are slaughtered and repackaged as tenderloins and shoulder butts, for delivery to meat cases at Kroger grocery stores.
Attempting to funnel market forces into better conditions for pigs, MFA has asked Kroger and three other supermarket chains to stop buying pork from JBS Swift. Also, the group has asked for company policy changes: No more buying from facilities that immobilize pregnant sows in metal “gestation crates,” which are already illegal in five states and the European Union. And no more buying from farms that castrate without anesthesia, to keep the unpleasant flavor of “boar taint” out of their meat.
This news went public just as a bill was pending in Iowa's senate, which would have made it a felony to gather undercover farm images. The last of four such bills nationwide, its chance at becoming law ended with the state's legislative season on June 30.
Kroger's quick response was a model of what animal agriculture's scholar-advocates have been pressing for, in industry conventions: assure the public of your shared values. And it reveals how corporate assumptions are changing about the public's interest in animal welfare.
According to spokesman Keith Dailey, Kroger immediately asked JBS Swift to investigate the facility and to stop sending Kroger meat from that location.
“What we saw in that video was very concerning,” Dailey says.
Josh Vaughn, a 23-year-old bacon-eater who came along to Mercy's press conference last week to “pay off” his girlfriend's mother (an MFA supporter) for some Diamond seats at a Reds game, agreed.
“That's really wrong,” says the OSU student, wincing from between two diamantine ear studs. “I'm a meat-eater. Do I feel like it's my fault these animals are being treated this way? No."
“I feel like I might be able to make people aware of what's going on, but being a consumer I can't do anything on my own,” he adds. “When you take something like the higher-ups of Kroger, though, one person could make a difference by saying, 'We're not buying from you any more.' ”
Though Kroger was prompt in expressing concern, it didn't meet MFA's requests. Rather than leverage its power to ask for a third-party audit, Kroger respectfully asked its supplier to do its own investigation of Iowa Select Farms.
The upshot: Iowa Select is undertaking what might be the only investigation of its own facility. The company has suspended two of its employees and called in the scrutiny of Anna Johnson, an Iowa State University researcher who serves the National Pork Board (the promotional body that just upgraded its decades-old “Pork: The Other White Meat” campaign to a more personal “Pork: Be Inspired”). Johnson also serves on Kroger's own, otherwise anonymous, animal welfare advisory panel.
By the end of last week, neither the Iowa Department of Agriculture nor local law enforcement had been asked to investigate the facility, although each one pointed toward the other for information on the case.
Because Mercy for Animals brought this footage to the media rather than authorities, critics have condemned the group for waiting to report animal abuses.
During an AgriTalk radio interview, Iowa Select Farms' Senior Veterinarian Howard Hill said that the undercover investigator, who was employed by the company from April until June of this year, had signed an affidavit saying she would report any animal abuse immediately.
When asked about the authenticity of the footage, he replied, “I wouldn't say it's been altered or edited,” but he did called the employee's failure to file a report “troubling.”
To that, MFA spokesman Daniel Hauff replies that an internal company report would not have prompted any change, because nothing in the footage — not the sick piglets disposed of by “thumping” their heads into cement, nor the untreated sows with prolapsed innards pouring out across dirty floors — is out of the ordinary for hog producers.
That, he says, is also why MFA didn't bother notifying any authorities: No laws were broken. Farmed animals are excluded from the protections of both the federal Animal Welfare Act and Iowa's animal cruelty laws, which explicitly protect all “customary animal husbandry practices.”
According to Hauff, the practices in this video are sadly customary; others disagree.
Lavinia Hultgren, a Warren County livestock veterinarian, questioned the video's authenticity. “Well, I've never ever heard of any farmer anywhere throw pigs around — that's money, that's your piglets,” she says.
Although Hultgren said she rarely castrates pigs, she didn't find fault with it.
“The theory is that since the nervous system develops from the front of the pig to the back, that those signals are not maturely processed,” she says, echoing what many local farmers have alleged.
But a Google Scholar search turns up a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on the pain felt by castrated piglets, and many researchers challenge the notion that newborn piglets feel less pain. Overseas, consensus on this point has prompted several dozen European hog industry groups to sign a voluntary declaration of commitment, which ends unanesthetized castration this year and all pig castrations by 2018.
American hog farmers would love to change their practices at a voluntary pace, but gruesome undercover videos only fan the flames of regulation and distrust.
Cincinnati's SPCA President Harold Dates, who is also the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board's animal welfare representative, says, “People with closed doors that don't want anybody around, to me are subject to question.”
Meat producers have a few choices. They can build better campaigns to criminalize undercover videos next year. Or they can follow the advice of noted animal welfare expert and author Temple Grandin and install webcams.
“People don't like the idea that a pig can't turn around,” Grandin said in an interview last fall. “What animal agriculture needs to do is get rid of the few things the public absolutely hates, and then you clean up your act and show the house.”