11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer
An animal-rights and vegetarian advocacy group released a video last month alleging inhumane treatment of chicks at a Pennsylvania chicken farm, but the poultry company in the cross hairs says its practices follow the highest animal welfare standards.
The hidden-camera video was shot earlier this year in Belleville, Pa., at a farm owned by Fredericksburg, Pa.-based Bell & Evans, a chicken producer with a reputation for emphasizing its animals’ well-being.
Washington, D.C.-based Compassion Over Killing posted the two-minute video on its website and on YouTube. The footage shows chicks riding a conveyor belt and undergoing “a rough and mechanical process that jostles them around as if mere inanimate objects,” according to the film’s narrator.
The film also shows defective chicks being dumped into a macerator, a machine with fast-moving blades, that kills the animals quickly.
Bell & Evans owner Scott Sechler responded promptly to the video, posting a rebuttal on the company’s website and Facebook page.
“At our hatchery, we’ve never strayed from humane animal best practices. It is our first priority and responsibility to euthanize only the sick and lame birds that would otherwise suffer,” Sechler wrote.
All new Bell & Evans employees must sign a copy of hatchery standards of animal welfare. The document includes numerous provisions for the safety of chicks and says that defective chicks are to be culled “as soon as you can by maceration.”
According to the document, employees who mistreat animals will be immediately fired.
The activist who filmed the video signed the hatchery standards; the signature is blacked out on the released document.
Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, said the investigator sought a job in the poultry industry to do an exposé and happened to land a job at Bell & Evans.
“There was no specific targeting of the company,” Meier said.
Compassion Over Killing took issue with Bell & Evans’ use of the macerator to cull unviable chicks without anesthesia. The machine kills chicks almost instantly.
Meier emphasized the “almost” in “almost instantaneously,” saying the chicks might still feel pain because they are ground up alive.
“Grinding up these chicks while they’re still fully conscious is not what most people would consider compassionate or humane,” Meier said. “We wouldn’t grind up live cats or dogs.”
“It’s just a fact of the poultry business” that some chicks will be unviable, said Tom Stone, Bell & Evans’ director of sales and marketing. Culling such chicks quickly is the appropriate thing to do, he said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and other animal-health industry organizations consider maceration an admissible euthanasia alternative to carbon dioxide gassing for poultry up to 72 hours old.
Carbon dioxide and other gases are used to make adult birds unconscious without pain.
Bell & Evans uses carbon dioxide on all of its adult birds at slaughter, Stone said, but maceration is so swift that gassing seems unlikely to significantly reduce the chicks’ pain.
Meier said that even if the birds were gassed before being killed, maceration would still be objectionable to her organization because the birds would still be alive when macerated.
Because newly hatched chicks may be used to the incubator’s high-carbon-dioxide environment, concentrations of the gas as high as 80 to 90 percent may be necessary to rapidly cull the animals, the veterinarians’ guidelines say.
Bell & Evans’ website posts letters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and other animal-rights groups lauding the company for its adoption of gassing three years ago.
PETA does not take an explicit stand on macerators on its website. In a general online statement not related to Bell & Evans, the group raises concerns that some egg producers summarily macerate all their male chicks “because they are worthless to the egg industry.”
Bell & Evans sells poultry meat, not eggs, Stone said. A posting on the Bell & Evans Facebook page says that “both male and female birds make up every flock of Bell & Evans chickens.”
The veterinary association guidelines say a macerator is an attractive euthanasia tool because it is safe for workers and can handle many chicks at a time.
The guidelines also caution that macerators should be kept in good working order and that workers should be trained to use the machines. The macerated chicks must be handled carefully to minimize biosecurity risks. The chicks must also be brought to the macerator in a way that does not cause a backlog or avoidable distress.
Stone said that the undercover video has not hurt Bell & Evans’ profits and few of the company’s customers have expressed concern.
“(The video) may actually have the opposite effect” and increase exposure to the company’s high ethical standards, he said.
“We’ve been very transparent with our customers,” he said. “Our customers are very engaged with what we do.”
“We’ve seen a lot of positive comments,” and most of the negative reactions have come from hard-line vegetarians who “want everyone to adopt their lifestyle,” he said.
As for advice for farmers who are afraid that animal-rights groups may try to infiltrate their farms, Stone said, “I’m not sure that there’s anything you can do to keep them out.”
If that happens, he said, farmers should step back and recognize that the activists are driven by an agenda to stop people from eating meat.
“We’re trying to find the best things possible to process chickens,” and the company is always willing to change if it finds more humane practices, Stone said.
He said a call to Compassion Over Killing seeking input on making culling more humane has gone unanswered.
Meier said the nonprofit had received Bell & Evans’ request for recommendations. “We’re looking into that opportunity,” she said.
The Compassion Over Killing video also alleges that birds killed by the conveyors were left dead in baskets with other chicks for unspecified periods of time. Meier was not sure how long the dead peeps lay in the baskets.