Hog abuse alleged at Pipestone farm
PIPESTONE — Mercy for Animals, a national nonprofit organization that promotes animal protection and a vegan lifestyle, released hidden-camera footage Tuesday showing alleged mistreatment of animals at a rural Pipestone hog farm. The video was released during an 11 a.m. press conference in Minneapolis, and can be viewed at www.walmartcruelty.com.
The alleged mistreatment took place at Rosewood Farms, one of two farms owned by Randy Spronk, president of the National Pork Producers Council, along with his brothers. Rosewood Farms is part of the Pipestone System, which consists of more than 200 shareholders in five Midwestern states.
Pipestone System markets its pork to nearly every U.S. processor. While its product is ultimately sold through multiple retailers, Wal-Mart was the direct target in the Mercy for Animals video.
According to Pipestone System President and CEO Luke Minion, the video was filmed by Jessica Marie Buck, a former Pipestone System employee now believed to be an undercover activist for Mercy for Animals. Buck worked for Pipestone System for six weeks, during which time Minion said she filmed the footage and edited it into the 3½-minute video released Tuesday.
Pipestone System first learned of the video two weeks ago, when Minion said it was contacted by the Pipestone County Sheriff’s Office regarding allegations of abuse against a Pipestone System employee. The company cooperated with the investigation, and charges have yet to be filed against any employees at the farm.
Minion said the farm conducted its own two-day internal investigation after learning of the abuse claims, after which several actions were taken.
“Within 48 hours, by his own admission, the employee admitted he violated company policy, so he was terminated,” Minion explained. Another employee was reassigned and the remaining employees were given follow-up training. Those actions, along with a third-party external audit of the operations at Rosewood Farm, were conducted prior to Tuesday’s video release by Mercy for Animals.
The video, coined “The Hidden Cost of Wal-Mart Pork,” is narrated by actor James Cromwell and describes the life of pigs at Rosewood Farm as being “filled with misery and deprivation.”
Video footage shows sows in gestation crates — a common housing practice in the swine industry — while Cromwell talks about the inhumanity of the space. In addition, the video shows piglets getting their tails cropped, male pigs being castrated and sickly pigs being killed by employees whacking them against concrete floors.
As the footage plays, Cromwell said employees at the farm were “mutilating piglets by cutting off their tails and ripping out their testicles.”
Minion called the footage an isolated incident and said Pipestone System does not condone the abuse shown in the video. He also said the organization is taking steps to improve its operation.
“Our next step inside of our organization is candidly the same today as it was yesterday and that is, we’re going to try to get better,” Minion said. “Certain things on the video were in violation of our policy. We fell short of our own expectations to do things right.”
Since learning of the reported abuse, Minion said Pipestone System has improved its policies and how it trains employees.
Who’s the target?
While the animal abuse footage was filmed at Rosewood Farm, the video specifically targets Wal-Mart and the retail giant’s consumers. The website displaying the video asks viewers to sign a petition against Wal-Mart for doing business with hog producers who use gestation crates in their operation.
“We believe the cruelest form of institutionalized animal abuse you see in this video is the use of gestation crates,” said Matt Rice, director of investigations for Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals, after describing the video footage as including “pregnant pigs confined to tiny metal crates barely larger than their own bodies for nearly their entire lives; workers smashing conscious piglets head-first into the concrete to kill them, ripping out their tails and their testicles without any painkillers, and violently punching, hitting and throwing piglets without any concern for their welfare.”
With gestation crates banned in nine U.S. states and the European Union, Rice said their use by farmers creates “physical and psychological suffering for these animals.”
“We’re asking Wal-Mart to follow the lead of their competitors … in taking a stand against this blatant animal abuse and requiring their pork producers to do away with the use of gestation crates,” Rice added.
“Wal-Mart has a big brand,” said Minion. “(Mercy for Animals) can try to leverage their agenda, which is vegan, to have Wal-Mart remove pork from its menu, from its offerings. The tactic Mercy for Animals uses here is to try to pressure companies into forcing changes in the supply chain to preserve their brand.”
As Rice said, more is at stake than the use of gestation crates.
“Our goal is to prevent needless suffering of animals,” he explained. “We encourage people to use healthy, plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs and give people tips on our website, choseveg.com.”
Meanwhile, Rice said it was disappointing that no charges were filed against Rosewood Farm as a result of the abuse claims.
“There are clear violations of Minnesota law going on here — hitting, punching, throwing animals — it’s clearly inhumane,” he said. “I think it stinks of corruption — perhaps a little bit of bowing to corporate pressure that the county prosecutor is failing to uphold the law and protect these animals.”
Addressing animal care
Minion said Pipestone System cares more about its animals “than those who attack us today.”
“I’ve spent my life as a veterinarian raising livestock and a farm kid before that,” he shared. “I believe that myself and our team of people are better positioned and understand how to care for animals than animal activist groups like Mercy for Animals. We’re going to continue to defend what we think we should, and we’re going to continue to try to expose the real agenda of this organization and others like them.”
Minion said Pipestone System is constantly looking for the best way to care for animals, including methods for castration, euthanasia, tail docking and housing.
“Those are issues that are highly sensationalized today given the various activist groups,” he said. “We’ve improved in those areas, and we intend to continue to improve. Everything we do we try to do for what we think is the right reason for the animals and the people who care for them.”
As for the video footage obtained by Buck, Minion said by filming the video and failing to report the animal abuse, she was in violation of company policy.
“When the Mercy for Animals employee signed the statement saying she would report animal abuse, she would not participate in animal mistreatment, she did condone it by being a part of it,” he said. “Those tactics have an agenda that’s not to improve the well-being of animals. In this case, for six weeks, Jessica Buck was condoning the mistreatment of animals and not telling us. That’s not right.”
Rice said Mercy for Animals conducts undercover investigations throughout the country.
“We feel that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and how animals on factory farms are treated so they can make choices,” he said. “And, we believe these animals have the right to have their stories told so that their suffering doesn’t go on behind the closed doors of these facilities.”
In 2012, Mercy for Animals released hidden camera footage taken at a Christensen Farms facility. Christensen Farms is one of the largest pork producers in Minnesota.
The National Pork Producers Council also released a statement, calling the “questionable undercover video” an “attack against America’s hog farmers.”
Dave Warner, director of communications for the NPPC, called Mercy for Animals a front group of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) with a political agenda.
“This latest attack by HSUS and MFA clearly is the result of the pressure they’re feeling after a year of significant state and federal legislative losses,” Warner said in the press release. “HSUS has spent significant amounts of its donors’ money on futile legislative efforts and on a lawsuit that had nothing to do with animal welfare was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge. HSUS donors, especially the many whose priorities are the protection of companion animals, deserve better than that.”