The Western Hog Exchange has one message for the pork industry in the wake of animal abuse allegations at its Red Deer facility.
“What we saw is not acceptable,” said Brent Moen, chairman of the farmer-owned exchange. “We’re introducing changes, and we’re taking responsibility for this. And we will make improvements to our process.”
An undercover video showing the alleged abuse came to light on Oct. 11, when CTV’s W5 aired footage taken by someone working undercover for Mercy for Animals Canada, an Ontario-based animal welfare group. The video shot by the person, who was employed at the plant for 10 weeks, showed workers dragging, kicking, and striking hogs with a plastic bat.
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But no one in Alberta’s pork industry was blindsided by the news. In September, CTV contacted Western Hog Exchange about the footage, and the organization worked quickly to get to the bottom of the allegations.
“We asked that they immediately turn the videos, in their entirety, over to the SPCA and the CFIA, because they are the two legislative bodies that can take legal action against us if there were, indeed, violations or charges that needed to be issued,” said Moen.
When CTV refused — citing a distribution agreement with Mercy for Animals Canada — exchange officials contacted the Alberta chapter of the SPCA and the regional office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“We told them that we would work with them and co-operate with them in any investigation that was forthcoming,” said Moen. “Obviously, we have no tolerance for this kind of stuff, so we agreed to get to the bottom of it.”
Two independent swine specialists were brought in to conduct a “complete open investigation,” he said.
“We asked them to come in and review all of our protocols, our training manuals, our procedures, and give us a report on what they found related to animal-handling issues and treatment of animals.”
Management also met with staff at the Red Deer facility to inform them of the complaint, review animal welfare standards, and to warn that disciplinary action would be taken if those standards weren’t adhered to.
Since then, the exchange has terminated one employee and suspended two others for failing to follow proper handling protocols.
Every livestock producer wants companies like his to use “the most humane handling practices that we can do,” said Moen.
“That said, people make mistakes. Within our handling system and with our workers, they have made mistakes. We have to hold them accountable for it, and we will try to ensure that it does not happen again.”
The response shows the exchange is serious about animal welfare, he added.
“I don’t believe that putting our head in the sand is going to make this issue go away,” said Moen.
“We have to deliver good, solid plans going forward to minimize the potential of this happening again. We want to do what’s right, and we will do what’s right.”
Taking immediate action was the right thing to do, said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork.
“Certainly, things were done wrong, and they are being corrected,” he said. “Something wasn’t right. They jumped on it. They fixed it quickly. And they’re willing to move in that direction for continuous improvement.”
That includes working with third-party auditors on an ongoing basis to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“I view this, for our organization and our industry, as a real learning experience. We will make some very positive changes out of this,” said Moen.
“At the end of the day, while I don’t like the process that Mercy for Animals uses, I do recognize this as an opportunity to make positive changes, and we will do that.”
Since the video was released in mid-October, Mercy for Animals has called on the federal government to “dramatically improve the very poor transportation regulations” in Canada’s livestock sector.
“The Agricultural Ministry has been promising for over eight years to update our transportation regulations, and it has consistently failed to act in any way,” said Krista Osborne, executive director of Mercy for Animals Canada.
Canada lags “grossly behind every other western nation” in its transportation regulations, she said. In the European Union, animals must be provided with food, water, rest, and protection from the elements on journeys lasting longer than eight hours.
Under Canada’s Health of Animals Regulations, hogs can be transported for up to 36 hours without food or water, but Fitzgerald said that happens “very rarely.”
“Most pigs travelling to our facilities would be under eight hours,” he said.
Even so, a review of transport regulations is “always worth looking at,” said Angela Greter, acting executive director of Alberta Farm Animal Care.
“Things change and new research becomes available,” she said. “We’re always striving to make it better.”
Mercy for Animals is also calling for “appropriate and dissuasive fines and penalties.”
“Regulations are certainly a first step, but enforcement is necessary. As we saw at Western Hog Exchange, the industry is incapable of regulating itself,” said Osborne.
“The CFIA was there for every single shift that our undercover investigator worked, and the CFIA failed to take any action.”
While the food inspection agency is responsible for enforcing regulations, organizations like the SPCA are better equipped to handle animal welfare concerns, said Greter.
“Everybody has an onus on them to report abuse if they see it,” she said. “The fact that this type of thing was going on for that length of time and wasn’t reported is really concerning for us. That’s not acceptable either. If this is going on, someone should be reporting it right away.”
Fitzgerald said that should have been Mercy for Animals.
“The individual was there for three months and then the video was held for at least another month and a half before being released,” he said. “You start to wonder what is the ultimate goal between Mercy for Animals and W5 who continuously do this. If we’re truly concerned about the animals, let’s voice it right away. Let’s not wait.”
That’s a question that should be put to the CFIA, responded Osborne.
“We must remember that the CFIA is law enforcement, and what went on at Western Hog Exchange was in full view of law enforcement,” she said, adding the undercover worker made a complaint directly to a CFIA inspector, who “failed to act.”
What happened at the exchange is a “systemic issue,” said Osborne, who claimed “over eight million animals in Canada arrive at assembly yards and slaughterhouses either dead or too sick and injured to become part of the food supply and, as such, are euthanized.”
“The only way to get any form of justice is to ensure that our grossly outdated transportation regulations are updated in a wholesale manner and that there is clear enforcement with dissuasive penalties for infractions.”