Thumbs Down on Undercover Farm Videos

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, film critics for the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune, created a television show on Chicago public television called At The Movies. The program featured the two critics reviewing the latest movies and showed film clips. They would rate each film by giving them a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  The show was very popular, was later syndicated nationally, and has since been copied by other critics. With undercover farm videos showing up in greater numbers on the internet, a program has been developed to rate the credibility and authenticity of these videos which is a service badly needed to help consumers determine if what they are seeing is accurate or fake.


The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) has created an Animal Care Review Panel.  The Panel, made up of recognized animal well-being experts, will examine video footage and report back to the public. The process has been established initially for the pork industry, but CFI is willing to engage with other sectors of animal agriculture as they show interest. The Panel will include an animal scientist, a veterinarian, and an ethicist to assure various perspectives are represented. To date the experts include, Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, Dr. Candace Croney of Purdue University, and Dr. Tom Burkgren of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.  All are professionals in their fields and not tied to agribusiness interests. According to the news release, “The Animal Care Review 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. The opinions expressed in the review are solely those of the expert panel.”


The first video to be reviewed by the experts is one purportedly taken on an Iowa hog farm. Released recently by a group called Compassion Over Killing, it is supposed to show animal abuse and cruelty. The slickly produced piece was released with accusations about modern pork production. But even to a layman’s eyes this video is suspect, and the experts concur that this video is far from what it is suppose to be.


After reviewing the piece the CFI panel came to the following conclusions:


“Most of what is shown in the video are normally accepted production practices and there was nothing that could be considered abusive. It was noted that employees appeared to be competent and well-trained and that the barn floors and the pigs themselves were clean.


In one scene, an employee is shown castrating and docking the tail of a piglet in close proximity to the mother. The video contends the sow is grunting in distress. One of the experts said that while it is likely that the sow experiences some distress in such a situation, both the sow and her piglets would probably experience similar or greater levels of stress if the piglet was transported elsewhere.


An employee is seen using tape on a piglet’s incisions following castration. One of the experts noted such a practice is considered more welfare friendly than stitches because it is less intrusive and requires less handling of the pig.


There was a short glimpse in the video of what appeared to be a herniated piglet and it was implied it was caused by incorrect castration. One expert noted the assertion is not correct – that the condition was likely related to genetics.


A scene showing several flies in a farrowing room was a point of concern and something the experts felt should be corrected.


Another point of concern is a portion of the video addressing the practice of “back feeding” – a process in which organs of piglets that have died are fed to the sows to boost their immune systems. The experts noted that it is unclear if this practice involves sows or pigs and its exact purpose. It is a normally accepted production practice used to stimulate the immune systems of pregnant sows late in gestation. This results in more effective and improved passive immunity that is passed from the mother to her offspring through the colostrum.


A sow shown walking awkwardly because its hooves had not been properly trimmed was also discussed. The experts noted the hooves should have been trimmed but they would have preferred seeing more than just a few seconds of the sow in question so it could be determined if there was a lameness issue.”


One of the reasons these videos have become a favorite tool of animal activists is that production agriculture has been slow to respond. Farmers decry them as being inaccurate, but have been slow to open the barn doors and let consumers look inside. Only in the past few years have there been efforts to show consumers what livestock production looks like. Consumers have tended to believe what they see because they have nothing to compare it to and have no perspective from which to judge the videos. The new CFI panel will help provide that perspective and provide an alternative interpretation of the images.


These videos get released on the internet. CFI needs to find a way to get its reviews of these videos on-line quickly and get them to show up on Google and YouTube next to the clip in question.  With a timely and effective response, agriculture can turn these undercover videos to its advantage.


In most cases, these videos will get a thumbs-down; but, in the case where the experts signal a thumbs-up and suggest the practices in the film are not good animal care, the industry must also respond quickly and publicly to discredit the practice and pressure the operation to change.


by Gary Truitt

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