Undercover investigation leads to closure of California slaughterhouse

An undercover investigation released today by Compassion Over Killing revealing inhumane slaughter of spent dairy cows led the USDA to close a California slaughterhouse. The footage, shot during June and July at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif., documented improper stunning of cows and potential violations of California state and federal laws.

The federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that, “in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut…” The COK investigator, however, documented cows who had been improperly stunned, still kicking, breathing, and struggling as they moved along the slaughter line.

The investigator also documented:

  • Workers standing on the mouths and nostrils of downed cows (those too who were too sick or injured to walk) to prevent them from breathing.
  • Workers repeatedly jabbing, hitting, electric prodding, and spraying cows with hot water in a narrow chute leading to the kill floor.
  • Workers pulling the tails of sick and injured cows to get them to stand and walk to their deaths.

Meat from Central Valley Meat Co. is sold to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. The company also sold to In-N-Out Burger until the fast food chain reportedly severed ties today. The investigation is reminiscent of a 2008 exposé by The Humane Society of the United States into Hallmark-Westland, another California dairy cow slaughter plant that supplied the USDA. The HSUS investigation led to the largest-ever meat recall in the nation’s history. That both of these slaughter facilities supplied the meat that is being fed to our nation’s schoolchildren should serve as a wake-up call. We must do better.

Investigation reveals cruelty at Walmart pork supplier

Gestation crates have come under a lot of fire in recent months. These crates are used to confine mother pigs for the duration of their pregnancies, which last four months. They’re put into another crate, a farrowing crate, to give birth, then are placed back into a gestation crate, the cycle repeating itself for about four years.

Since February of this year, company after company after company has publicly distanced itself from these cruel contraptions, from a variety of sectors ranging from restaurant to retailer to manufacturer to food service provider. Today alone both Costco and Sears (parent company of Kmart) announced they would rid their supply chains of pork produced using gestation crates.

While the list of companies that have enacted policies on this issue reads like a who’s who of the world’s largest food companies (McDonald’s, Burger King, Kroger, Kraft, and Safeway to name just a few), there are still a number of companies that are dragging their heels.

Animal protection organization Mercy For Animals released the results of an undercover investigation today revealing cruelty and abuse at a Christensen Farms, which supplies Walmart, one such company that has failed to take a position on gestation crates.

The investigation conducted on a farm in Hanska, Minnesota documented:

  • The routine suffering of mother pigs confined in filthy crates so small they can’t even turn around. Many of the pigs exhibited stereotypical behaviors like banging their heads against the bars of their cages and repeatedly chewing on the cage bars as a result of stress and boredom;
  • Castration and tail-docking of fully-conscious piglets without any painkiller;
  • Injured animals with untreated wounds left to suffer; and
  • Workers “thumping” piglets—slamming them to the ground—to slowly die.

The Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals are calling on Walmart to create a policy to get gestation crates out of its supply chain. You can sign a change.org petition here to join their call.

Gestation crates: a product of a bygone era?

In recent months, there has been a torrent of movement surrounding the intensive confinement of breeding pigs in small stalls known as gestation crates. The movement is not new, with companies having started moving down this path several years ago and laws being passed in the U.S. as early as 2002 when Florida voters voted to ban the crates. However, it reached a turning point in February of this year when McDonald’s announced publicly that it would require its suppliers to outline their plans for getting gestation crates out of their supply chains.

Since then, many of the world’s largest food companies, including Burger King, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Sonic, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., Safeway, Kroger, and others have started moving down this more humane path. Just yesterday, Oscar Meyer, owned by Kraft—the world’s second-largest food company, announced it would get gestation crates out of its supply chain within ten years.

With new announcements taking place every single week, what does the pork industry have to say in defense of confining pigs in cages so small they can’t even turn around? Well some are still defending the practice while others realize the day is coming when they will have to adapt. As The Western Producer wrote, “You’d have to have rocks in your head to build a new sow barn with gestating sow stalls.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Au revoir foie gras

As California goes, so goes the nation some say. In 2004, California became the first state in the country to ban the sale and production of foie gras from force-fed ducks and geese. The law goes into effect on Sunday, July 1.

Foie gras is the fattened liver of ducks and geese who are force-fed through a pipe shoved down their throats. The force-feeding takes place twice a day for about two weeks until the animals are on the verge of organ rupture. It’s a controversial item celebrated by foodies and deplored by animal protectionists for its inherent cruelty.

Duck at Sonoma Foie Gras Photo by APRL

While California might be the first U.S. state to ban the practice, it’s not the first locality by far. Laws have been passed in more than a dozen other countries to outlaw foie gras production, including Israel, which was formerly the world’s fourth-largest foie gras producing country. It banned foie gras production on the grounds that it violated the country’s pre-existing animal cruelty statute.

California’s law came with a seven-and-a-half year phase-out period during which foie gras producers could have worked to find an alternate production method to force-feeding. At the time the state’s sole foie gras producer, Guillermo Gonzalez who runs Sonoma Foie Gras, lobbied in support of the ban, saying, “I have the moral stature to accept that if within the seven-and-a-half years established by S.B. 1520, science and government don’t arrive to the conclusion that the methods used in our foie gras production are acceptable … I will be ready to quit.”

No one has found a humane magic bullet to mass produce foie gras that doesn’t involve force-feeding the animals. Yet a handful of chefs and Gonzalez are manufacturing an eleventh hour crisis to try to get the bill overturned. In an effort to mislead consumers about the production of foie gras, they are trying to create standards which would essentially codify what they’re already doing. For example, requiring that the birds are not confined in cages (they’re not caged in California to begin with) and that the birds are hand-fed. The latter conjures images of a friendly farmer lovingly holding his hand out to let a duck gobble feed from his palm. In reality, it would simply mean that workers would use their hands to individually shove a pipe down the birds’ throats—something they already do.

In a state where we’re facing an economic crisis and many other important issues, it’s sad to see the legislative system, and the media for that matter, being tied up by a few chefs’ petty desire to be able to eat and sell a product that few can afford and that so clearly is cruel and inhumane to produce. For the ducks and geese in California and those of us who’ve been waiting for this day for seven and a half years, July 1 can’t get here soon enough. And may many states follow.

Three reasons farm animal welfare is an important CSR tenet for the food industry

Images of animal cruelty, including the intensive confinement of pigs in gestation crates, may damage brand reputation

When we think about corporate social responsibility, we might think of waste and emissions reductions, recycling programs, or maybe fair wages. In recent years though, animal welfare has become a prominent CSR issue for food companies—and for good reasons. So why should food companies include farm animal welfare in their CSR plans?

  1. Consumers care about farm animal welfare. Animal welfare consistently ranks as a leading concern for consumers. Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm, found that animal welfare is the third-most important social issue to American restaurant patrons, outranking the environment, buying organic and buying fair trade. A 2010 study by Context Marketing determined that animal welfare is a major consideration for shoppers, finding that “69 percent of consumers report they will pay more for food brands they see as ‘ethical’” and 91 percent include good animal welfare in their definition of ethical.
  2. Images of animal cruelty damage brand reputation. More than 80 percent of breeding pigs in the pork industry are confined in gestation crates: two foot wide cages that are barely larger than the animals’ own bodies, preventing them from even turning around. Confining animals in these cramped cages is antithetical to the way most Americans believe animals ought to be treated. In a 2008 food industry report, Citigroup warned of, “…a number of potential headline risks that could tarnish the image of restaurant companies, including concerns over animal cruelty…”
  3. Current systems are unsustainable. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, have replaced the vast majority of traditional small farms in America. These facilities can contain tens of thousands of animals at any given moment, and warehousing vast numbers of animals like this wreaks environmental havoc. CAFOs are resource intensive and their waste pollutes nearby air and water making life miserable for neighbors. Moving toward higher animal welfare products means moving to systems that house animals in less concentrated numbers and reduce pollution.

As these issues gain more prominence, a number of large companies are including animal welfare as part of their CSR commitments. Recently, the country’s largest grocery chain, Kroger, called on its suppliers to accelerate their movement away from gestation crates for pigs. McDonald’s also recently announced a timetable to phase out all pork produced with gestation crates. Wendy’s, Denny’s, and Safeway have made similar commitments. And Burger King took its commitment one step further, pledging to also switch to exclusively cage-free eggs. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, told the Columbus Dispatch that Wendy’s announcement is part of an ongoing movement, “not just in animal welfare but in corporate responsibility.” He continued, “Many major chains are re-evaluating the way animals are treated in the food-service supply chain.”

And as Chipotle has seen, a corporate culture based on responsible stewardship of animals and the environment pays off. NPR’s The Salt reports that when Chipotle started selling Niman Ranch pork, which comes from pigs raised without gestation crates, sales improved. Chris Arnold, communications director of Chipotle told The Salt, “We started selling twice as many carnitas as we had been before.”

Some companies have yet to make progress, presenting a threat to shareholders and their public image. Rebuking those laggards, Pork Magazine editorialized in March, “on the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it’s increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle.” Meat industry trade journal, Meatingplace, editorialized in March, “Game over. For any pork producer still on the fence [about gestation crates], the McDonald’s announcement makes the move inevitable, whether or not they are a McD’s supplier.”

As Rory Sullivan, a researcher and ethical investment consultant, told Food Navigator, animal welfare is reaching a tipping point. “The end point for investors is that they will see animal welfare as a risk issue and then use their influence with companies to encourage them to manage the issue better.”

Published originally on TriplePundit.com.