An animal welfare group that has used undercover videos to generate public outrage over the treatment of livestock said it now plans to use secret recordings to pressure large grocery chains to stop buying from farms that use practices it considers abusive.
The effort seemed to be working as several chains viewed the video and then either halted purchases from the targeted Iowa hog farm or expressed concern even before Chicago-based Mercy for Animals formally unveiled the recording at news conferences planned Wednesday in four cities.
Earlier this week, Mercy for Animals met with or sent letters to officials at Costco, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Safeway and provided links to its 2½-minute video, then asked them to stop buying pork from Iowa Select Farms. The group said it secretly recorded its video between April and June at an Iowa Select Farms operation in the small town of Kamrar, about 50 miles north of Des Moines.
Nathan Runkle, Mercy for Animal's executive director, said his group and others have used secretly recorded videos to raise public awareness, but this was among the first major efforts to use such recordings to pressure retailers. The group previously used another video to convince Costco to change its policies dealing with veal obtained from an Ohio producer, he said.
"We are looking at grocery chains buying from this facility and asking them to implement stronger animal welfare policies," Runkle said. "They have a responsibility to make sure animals that appear on their store shelves are not mistreated."
The group planned news conferences Wednesday in Seattle, Des Moines, Cincinnati and San Francisco, which are near headquarters for the four grocery chains.
Iowa Select Farms is among the nation's largest hog producers, with dozens of operations scattered throughout the state.
Howard Hill, a veterinarian and the company's director of external affairs, said Iowa Select was looking into the video but believes the recording gave an inaccurate picture of their operation.
"We're currently in the process of investigating the whole thing," Hill said. "We do know that a lot of this video is inaccurate, that it was staged. But until we get a full investigation done, we're not going to make any specific comments about the video."
Hill added, though, that he found such undercover videos to be unfair.
"We feel that pork producers are hard-working, honest people, and they don't deserve this kind of undocumented journalism, if you want to call it journalism," Hill said "It's not innocent before you're proven guilty. You're guilty immediately because it goes on YouTube and everybody wants to believe what they see."
The new campaign comes as farmers are pushing harder to make secret videotaping of livestock illegal. Legislators in at least four states — Florida, Minnesota, New York and Iowa — considered measures this year backed by farming groups that would have outlawed the practice, but all the proposals stalled after opposition by animal welfare groups.
In the Mercy for Animal's video, sows are shown in small cages, known as gestation crates, that limit their ability to move, and workers are shown castrating piglets and removing their tails without anesthetics. There also are images of ill hogs.
There are repeated shots of workers tossing piglets across a room. In one shot, a female employee says it doesn't hurt the piglets because they are "bouncy," and she compares it to a "rollercoaster ride" for the animals.
Runkle said Mercy for Animals was most concerned with ending the use of gestation crates.
"If there is pressure by grocery chains to phase these gestation crates out, we can eliminate animal abuse in a shorter period of time," he said. "Subjecting them to nearly a lifetime of confinement is really one of the most egregious longstanding abuses."
John Mabry, director of the Iowa Swine Industry Center at Iowa State University, hadn't seen the video, but he said gestation crates have been commonly used for years and that it's an industry standard to castrate piglets and cut off the last 3 inches of their tales without anesthetic.
Producers keep pregnant sows in gestation crates in an effort to reduce aggressive behavior by separating them from other hogs and to ease feeding of individual sows.
Male pigs are castrated because otherwise their meat develops a bad taste and has little value. The tails are clipped to keep dominant males from biting the tails of other piglets, which can cause various health problems.
Both are generally done within the first 24 hours of a pig's life because it's believed the animals feel less pain then, Mabry said.
Mabry questioned the credibility of undercover videos but said Mercy for Animals' plan to put pressure on individual companies might be effective.
"If they can impact one grocery store, they can impact a lot of consumers," Mabry said. "What they're doing is just another way, a new way to do it."
After watching the video, officials at Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway said they had stopped purchases from its supplier, JBS Swift, which distributes pork from the Iowa company, until an investigation into the conditions shown on the video can be completed.
"Safeway does not tolerate animal abuse of any kind and finds the images and animal handling practices contained in the Mercy for Animals video to be extremely disturbing and in violation of our animal welfare policies," spokeswoman Teena Massingill said in a statement.
Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey said his company also had asked JBS Swift to investigate the conditions shown in the video. Until that investigation is completed, Kroger has told JBS Swift to stop supplying the chain with pork from the Iowa operation.
Craig Jelinek, president of Seattle-based Costco, said company officials met with a representative of Mercy for Animals on Monday to discuss the company's animal welfare policies and would investigate the matter with its supplier.
A spokeswoman for Hy-Vee, a Midwest chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa, said the company received a letter from Mercy for Animals outlining the group's claims of animal abuse and would talk with its supplier.
Mabry said such videos would put heat on retailers but animal welfare groups won't see lasting change until they engage farmers with their concerns.
"They need to work with the production sector to do that," he said. "Grocery stores can't do that."