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Consumer views on animal care win attention

Defending reputation | Although the public perception of animal abuse may be wrong, ‘perception is reality,’ says poultry firm

An American poultry company had a problem on its hands in 2011 when an animal activist group conducted an undercover investigation at a North Carolina facility.

The video, produced by Mercy for Animals, showed large tom turkeys kept four to a stall.

Alice Johnson, vice-president of food safety and animal care with Butterball, LLC, said the eight by eight foot stalls look overcrowded to consumers, but the company saw turkeys that were large and happy.

Fighting would have broken out between the birds if they had been free to roam in a much larger pen, she added. However, Johnson acknowledged that the way the consumer sees how the company conducts its business reflects on the business itself.

“Perception is reality,” she told the recent Farm Animal Council of Sask-atchewan conference in Saskatoon.

Butterball responded to the video by conducting its own investigation. Investigators visited 52 tom and hen turkey houses to compile an extensive report and review animal welfare problems.

She said a new chief executive officer produced a video that discussed the importance of animal care and treating birds.

Butterball discovered that little turkey research was available, and no national guidelines or specific programs for turkey breeders had been developed because turkey demand peaks only a few times a year.

As a result, the company created the Animal Care Council with a panel of scientists, which suggests more humane ways to manage turkeys.

Butterball also updates its training on a monthly basis and conducts external and internal audits. Cases in which employees mistreat birds or see someone else mishandle birds must be reported or all parties in-volved in the incident will be fired.

Video monitoring, alternatives to stunning, elimination of manual blunt force trauma and new loading equipment were among the new policies.

Johnson said Butterball’s more than 600 farms are going through a third party certification process to strengthen the program further.

“Some people were concerned that the criteria is too hard, and I think it’s really improved us because it’s really helped pushed the continuous im-provement,” she said.

Florian Possberg, whose family created Polar Pork Farms, said animal activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have an agenda to encourage consumers to become vegetarian and eliminate animal protein on the market.

“They’re subtly giving them (consumers) the message that meat consumption is bad, is horrible,” said Possberg, who is chair of SaskPork and a member of the Canadian Swine Health Board and Pig Code Committee. He said slick campaigners use hundreds of thousands of dollars to out-campaign each other.

Possberg said he is also following what is being done about animal welfare in the European Union, where legislation has banned individual stalls for pregnant sows, required permanent access to materials for rooting, placed restrictions on pig mutilations and defined the weaning age at four weeks. As well, castration will be phased out by 2018.

“Apparently castration is a painful procedure … however, in the case of male pigs, and many male species are the same, they get quite aggressive,” Possberg said.

Pigs have died because of sexual aggression, he added.

A code of conduct for hog management is now being developed that will define rules for producing pork and acceptable rules for selling pork.

Animals must be kept in mind while creating the code, he added.

“What’s the benefit for the animal, how is the animal going to cope with the days to come?” he said. “So I think although brand is important and consumer perception is important, at the end of the day we’d better keep in mind what the animals need.”

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