UPDATE: NPPC president responds to undercover video allegations

Published on: Oct 30, 2013
Mercy for Animals used its latest undercover video to call on Walmart to ban its suppliers from housing sows using traditional gestation stalls.
Mercy for Animals used its latest undercover video to call on Walmart to ban its suppliers from housing sows using traditional gestation stalls.

National Pork Producers Council president Randy Spronk is among the owners of a Minnesota farm depicted in an undercover video released Oct. 29 by animal rights group Mercy For Animals (MFA). According to the Associated Press, the video  was shot earlier this summer at the Rosewood Farm owned in part by Spronk Brothers, including NPPC president Randy Spronk.

"First off, I do not condone, and was very upset about what I saw on the video," Spronk told Feedstuffs

"This also is a question of, as an industry, this zero tolerance standard we live with now," he continued. "When you work with people and pigs, we know there are failures, and we’re very open about that. We constantly work on how to identify and correct those failures."

Spronk Brothers' farms are part of the Pipestone System, a large network of independently owned shareholder farms operating under a joint management program by Pipestone System employees. According to Pipestone, the organization cooperated with local authorities in response to a complaint of animal mistreatment, and conducted its own internal investigation into the situation.

MFA, known for its undercover video operations, released its latest film including footage obtained by a former Pipestone employee and suspected MFA operative. Narrated by Academy Award winning actor James Cromwell, the video depicted alleged mistreatment of animals on the farm, including workers euthanizing pigs using blunt-force trauma, castration of male pigs absent anesthesia, and injured pigs with open wounds the group said had not received appropriate veterinary attention.

Much of the film focused on the farm’s use of gestation stalls, a practice the group referred to as “sickening cruelty.” It called on Walmart to stop purchasing pork from suppliers who use gestation stalls as part of their production systems.

While authorities in Pipestone County have opted not to bring any charges against Pipestone employees, Pipestone System president Luke Minion said the company had immediately terminated one employee, reassigned another, and mandated follow-up training of its remaining staff, based on its own investigation into the allegations.

“We remain absolutely committed to animal welfare and will continue to improve upon training and oversight every day,” said Carissa Odland, Pipestone’s director of animal welfare. She said the System underwent an immediate third-party external audit of the farm’s operations as an additional measure.

Spronk added that the Rosewood Farm has been certified through the Pork Checkoff's Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) program, which mandates a third-party audit. In addition, the farm has gone through two additional third-party animal handling and welfare audits.

Video review panel addresses issues

A panel of animal care experts convened by the Center for Food Integrity reviewed the video as presented online by MFA concluded that although many practices depicted in the video are standard procedures generally accepted by the industry, employee behavior toward the animals was a major issue that needed to be addressed.

“There are far too many issues seen in this video, including behaviors and attitudes of the caretakers, that are definitely not reflective of standard industry practice and that are just wrong,” said Purdue University animal behavior and well-being expert Candace Croney.

Spronk said that the individuals responsible for the issues depicted in the video no longer work at the farm.

"There are two people in my mind who were culpable – the one was the employee who did not follow policy, training and procedures, and he was fired," he explained. "The other was the MFA activist who did not bring theses issues to her supervisors, despite signing numerous forms and agreements compelling her to do so in the best interest of the animals."

The review panel held that the use of gestation stalls was not in and of itself an example of abuse, but noted that some animals appeared to be housed in stalls that were too small.

Similarly, the use of blunt force trauma is an accepted form of euthanasia, but Croney said that when improperly executed, the possibility of animal suffering is “problematic,” and could be an issue in terms of employee morale.

“It is paradoxical to ask employees to provide compassionate care and also to kill, especially in such a fashion,” she said. “Worse, when employees show the types of abusive attitudes evident in this video, the concern that is raised is whether doing this type of procedure worsens indifference to animals.”

The panel, which also included Michigan State University’s Janice Swanson and University of Minnesota’s John Deen, criticized employees’ methods of handling animals as depicted in the video, but said that castration and tail docking was done using acceptable methods.