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Ag industry defends itself over grisly chick video

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)--Paul Lasley cringed when he heard about an undercover video showing unwanted chicks being tossed alive into a grinder at an Iowa hatchery.

The images were upsetting, to be sure, but as someone who grew up on a farm, Lasley knows that bringing meat and poultry to America's dinner table is often a grisly business.

"When our parents made the decision to send this cow or pig or lamb to market, it was a sad day,'' he recalled. "But it would be sadder if we couldn't make the payment on the farm.''

Lasley, a sociologist at Iowa State University who specializes in rural issues, and others argue that most Americans in this age of supermarkets, suburbanization and multinational agribusinesses know little about farming and how animals raised for food are treated and why.

They contend that videos like the one in Iowa stir up people's emotions without addressing important business considerations--in this case, the need to dispose of male chicks that have little value because they can't lay eggs or grow large enough or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat.

"Part of that I think is the disconnect that many consumers have with agriculture,'' Lasley said. "Fewer people actually grow up on a farm and kill animals.''

Animal rights groups, for their part, say the industry needs to change its ways and treat chickens, hogs, cattle and other animals with more care.

"There's a real disconnect between our love for animals in society and these practices that are hidden largely from the public,'' said Michael Markarian, chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States. "We believe that all animals should be treated humanely, including animals raised for food. That's a mainstream American value.''

The video was filmed with a hidden camera at a hatchery in Spencer owned by Hy-Line North America. It shows several chicks dying on the factory floor and male ones being tossed into a grinder, a standard industry practice that was adopted just after World War II, when farmers began raising some hens for the meat and others for just the eggs.

Nationally, chicks also are killed on electrically charged plates and by suffocation with carbon dioxide.

The images in the video aren't pretty, but industry groups said the chicks die instantly. And they said the footage belies an overall trend of improved treatment of animals in the past decade. The poultry industry, for example, has abandoned forced molting, in which hens are starved for a week or two to get them to lay more eggs.

Last year, California voters approved a measure that bars farmers from confining veal calves, pregnant pigs and egg-laying hens in spaces so small that they can't turn around, lie down or extend their limbs. The major elements of the law will take effect in 2015 over the objections of farmers, who worry it will be costly to expand henhouses and buy more land.

Hens often are kept in small cages because it is cheaper. The hens take up less space, and because they can't move around and expend energy, they eat less.

Animal rights groups also oppose a variety of hog lot practices, particularly the castration of hogs and the removal of their tails without anesthetics.

Uncastrated hogs produce meat with a revolting urine taste known as "boar taint.'' And farmers clip hogs' tails because in tight spaces, the animals will chew each others' tails and can bleed to death. The industry says anesthetizing the animals would be too expensive.

"Most people think their food comes from a grocery store,'' said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "In processing food animals, there are things that you have to do to get them there.''

Some producers, such as Sun Ray Chicks Hatchery in Hazelton, have found other options. Owner Elaine DeGraw said her small operation, which raises 8,000 to 9,000 chicks a week, gives the male ones to raptor conservation groups. They feed the chicks to injured birds of prey.

"They get the benefits of it, so we don't have to throw them away,'' DeGraw said. "It's putting it back into the food chain.''

Emily Patterson-Kane, an animal welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association, said she worries that public revulsion to the grinding up of live chicks could force a shift to techniques that would be worse for the animals. Gassing male chicks, for example, might appear more humane, but chicks are resistant to the sedative effects and might suffer more than if they were quickly ground up, she said.

Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, the Chicago organization that shot the video, said his group wants federal laws regulating treatment of farm animals, something now left largely to the states.

In 30 states, including Iowa, anything considered standard agricultural practice is exempt from prosecution, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It would be the same as handing over power and authority to chemical companies to decide what is an appropriate level of toxic waste to dump into nearby streams and groundwater,'' Runkle complained.

Hy-Line North America said it will investigate the Iowa hatchery but emphasized that "instantaneous euthanasia'' is a standard practice.

The United Egg Producers, a trade group, said it, too, would investigate Hy-Line. In a statement, it also said the industry is researching methods for breeding primarily female chicks, though it noted that "the work is very preliminary and could present other barriers.''

In the meantime, animal rights activists consider it their duty to expose the way the industry works.

"Most people don't know how animals are raised for food and how their animals get to their plate,'' Markarian said. "The more that we can pull the curtain back on these practices, the more we can have support for reasonable reforms.''



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