by MATT MCINTOSH
An expert panel convened by Canada's egg industry has condemned the activities in a video depicting several instances of abusive handling practices at two Alberta poultry farms.
But the way the information is presented has at least one panel member noting it’s “sometimes difficult to tell what’s really going on.”
The Egg Farmers of Canada commissioned the U.S.-based Center for Food Integrity to organize a video-review panel following the Saturday airing of several minutes of video footage taken at Kuku and Creekside Grove farms, two large poultry operations near Edmonton Alberta.
The video segments appeared on CTV’s investigative journalism program W5 and showed dead birds crammed with live ones in small cages, employees killing chicks by hitting their heads on hard surfaces, and other practices that do not fall in line with the animal welfare policies established by the National Farm Animal Care Council.
W5 obtained the footage from animal rights group Mercy for Animals Canada. A farm employee working undercover for the organization recorded the footage.
The Center for Food Integrity panel, which was made up of one animal welfare expert from the United States and two from Canada, released its conclusions to the public and the egg industry Monday afternoon. (Center for Food Integrity is a non-profit organization based in the United States. Its members include U.S. farming and agricultural commodity organizations as well as agriculture and agri-food businesses).
In its report, the panel concludes that the video does show "unethical and irresponsible treatment of animals."
"I disagree with everything I saw in the video," said Stewart Ritchie, one of the panelists and a member of Canadian Poultry Consultants Ltd in a Center news release. "In my opinion, witnessing this type of cruelty demands prompt attention. This should have been dealt with immediately."
But the experts also noted that the video clips were short and jumbled, and sometimes showed conflicting situations, such as cages that in one scene appeared overcrowded and not so in the next.
“In these types of video productions they go back and forth between scenes so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s really going on,” said Candace Croney, an animal welfare expert with Purdue University, in the Center news release.
Crystal Mackay, executive director of Farm Food Care Ontario, also notes that the group "condensed five weeks of video into five minutes, and developed a PR campaign before releasing it to CTV."
One of the campaign’s goals may be to discourage people from eating meat, she says. While the video shows “there are clearly some major issues at the two farms,” she adds that it’s important “to remember that MFAC is an animal rights group that doesn't believe in eating meat at all."
Mercy For Animals’ U.S. website describes the organization as “dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.”
Mackay says the group's American counterpart has used similar tactics on farms in the United States, and that some states actually have introduced laws banning undercover videos and photos to halt the practice.
Canada, however, has no such legislation.
Keeping the industry transparent, she says, will help show the public that there's a more positive side to the egg industry. She cites Farm and Food Care’s virtual farm tour series, which offers web browsers the opportunity to view operations of all kinds, including conventional and free-range egg farms as an example of how the agriculture industry reaches out to the public and offers insight into its activities. Farm and Food Care also encourages livestock farmers to discuss animal welfare with their employees and have employees sign an “animal care code of conduct,” she adds.
But one animal welfare specialist expressed concern about the industry’s initial response to the video.
According to W5's report, the owner of the two farms refused to comment on the video. Egg Farmers of Alberta also refused an on-camera interview, but did agree to watch the video.
After viewing the footage, however, Egg Farmers of Alberta declined any further interviews. Organization spokespeople said that they needed more time to study the footage before they could comment.
"Some don't want to say anything, but the industry needs to be willing to talk about [the video] if they want to retain a level of social autonomy," says Jeffery Spooner, a social scientist with the University of British Columbia's animal welfare program. "Animal welfare is the responsibility of all stakeholders, and the public has a right to ask."
Prior to the report airing on CTV, Egg Farmers of Canada also released a security advisory telling producers that representatives from the media were visiting egg operations in Alberta, and instructed producers not to allow the media access to their farms.
The W5 report asserts the advisory indicated that no one in the egg industry wanted to discuss the video’s contents. Mackay says otherwise.
"Many organizations release these kinds of advisories when things like this happen," explains Mackay. "They are designed to let farmers know ‘hey, these people are affecting your industry and we need to verify what’s happening.’ It doesn't automatically mean the industry is trying to hide from the public."
The W5 report also noted that KuKu Farms is a major egg supplier to Burnbrae Farms, which sells eggs to McDonald's Canada.
On Monday, McDonald’s issued a prepared statement declaring that it had never purchased eggs from KuKu Farms and none of its eggs are sourced from Alberta.
The statement included a letter from Burnbrae president Margaret Hudson addressed to Jeff Kroll, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Limited senior vice-president, national supply chain. In the letter, Hudson confirms Burnbrae has bought eggs from KuKu Farms in the past, but "do not sell any product of any kind to McDonald's Canada which is sourced from Alberta."
While waiting for a full investigation, Burnbrae Farms has also ceased buying eggs from KuKu Farm, Hudson notes.
In a statement released Monday, Peter Clarke, chair of Egg Farmers of Canada says he shares in the public’s response to the video and that the images shown are “unacceptable.”
“However, I object to any perception that this is in any way common, tolerated or representative,” he adds. “It simply is not.”
Clarke notes that the industry is investigating the video and will ensure corrective actions will be taken. BF
-- with files from Better Farming staff