April, 2006- Fifteen minutes after the first hidden video of his company’s animal handling at the processing plant was released to the press, Dr. Kellye Pfalzgraf became the director of animal well-being for IBP.
Pfalzgraf now holds this position for Tyson Foods, which purchased IBP a few years ago. Pfalzgraf shared the story of his fourth hidden video experience with the audience at the educational sessions at International Poultry Expo.
Pfalzgraf, a veterinarian who has worked in private, large-animal practice and for the USDA, said that PETA will put contracts out on plants to get a “mole” to secure a job at the plant and get them video of animal handling at the plant. He explained that there are activists who think that being a “mole” is like “playing 007” in the plant. Pfalzgraf explained that PETA will find a reason to go into a particular facility, and they will put out an open contract on that facility. They will tell the potential “mole” what kind of footage they are looking for, give them a time frame and tell them what the payment will be.
Pfalzgraf said that PETA targeted this particular Tyson broiler plant because it had a cadaver rate, determined by USDA online inspectors, that was three times higher on night shift than on day shift. The “mole” got a job as the backup to the automatic kill machine on night shift and used a camera and recording system hidden in a pair of headphones and a device that looked like an iPod. Cameras have reportedly been hidden in boom box-style radios in the hanging room at other plants. Pfalzgraf said the “mole” told the picking line supervisor that he didn’t like the music listened to by the live hangers, so he wanted to listen to his own music on his own radio.
The hidden video was released by PETA to the press on May 24, 2005, and it showed three examples of animal cruelty, according to the activist group. Welfare “problems” shown on the video are removing heads from stunned live birds, damage to the birds, including broken wings and lacerations and cuts, and live birds entering the scalder.
PETA said that the employee had worked at the plant for three months, and this information, coupled with information gleaned from the video, allowed Tyson to identify who the mole was and to estimate the time when the video was made, near the end of 2004. “Some video of your facilities may already be at an animal activist’s (office) and they are just waiting for the proper time to pull the video off the library shelf. In beef we have seen some of this video come out six years after the fact,” Pfalzgraf said.
On his application, the PETA “mole” used references for employers who were deceased or who had gone out of business. He also listed some self-employed jobs. “It looked like a good application, but you couldn’t check anything,” Pfalzgraf said.
The employee who backs up the automatic kill machine has the task of using a knife to cut the blood vessels in the neck of birds that are missed by the kill machine. The video PETA released shows an employee pulling heads off stunned birds rather than cutting their necks. Pfalzgraf explained that this action, pulling the heads off, is really cervical dislocation followed by decapitation, which is an acceptable means of killing the animals. “But it just doesn’t look right; it is hard to defend this to the general public,” he said.
Pfalzgraf said that when the employee who backs up the kill machine has to take a break, one of the live hangers fills in for them. Pfalzgraf explained that all employees who use a knife in the plant are required to wear protective equipment on their other hand, like a steel mesh glove. He speculated that the mole might have taken a break one day and inadvertently brought his protective glove with him. The live hanger filling in for him could not use the knife without proper protection, because it is a safety violation, so he pulled the heads off instead. Upon returning from his break, the mole might have seen the live hanger pulling the heads off and decided that this would make interesting video. This is what Pfalzgraf believes happened, but he doesn’t know for sure. The hanger should have stopped the line rather than pull the heads off. “This person should have stopped the line and told his supervisor that he didn’t have the proper protective equipment,” Pfalzgraf said. “We need to change the mindset of people working in animal handling areas. He should have known that it was OK for him to stop the system when there was an animal welfare concern and when something like this happens it should be documented.”
On the video, it was alleged that the automatic knife was improperly adjusted and that this is what caused the broken wings and cuts on the birds shown on the video. Pfalzgraf said that the cuts shown on breasts and thighs couldn’t have happened in the kill machine, because it won’t open wide enough to get the parts of the bird in the machine that were shown to be cut on the video. Pfalzgraf also said that in the video the “mole” uses a knife in his hand to point out the cuts, and then later pulls the knife away. According to Pfalzgraf, the most plausible explanation for the cuts on the birds shown on the video is that the “mole” cut the birds himself with the knife shown in his hand on the video. Despite the staged nature of the damage shown on the video, Pfalzgraf said that processors “need to check for broken wings and document results and document actions taken.”
“Last were the live birds entering the scalder, which was potentially the most damaging,” Pfalzgraf said. It was the backup knife operator’s job to make sure that all of the birds are cut. The mole was caught leaving his work area twice, but the supervisor didn’t document it. “If it had been documented and investigated, they could have ended it there,” he said. Tyson has documentation of the training that the mole received, and the individual had acknowledged after the training that he understood the responsibilities of the job. Pfalzgraf explained that the mole must have just let the uncut birds that the kill machine missed go into the scalder and filmed this, rather than doing his job and cutting them as he had been trained to do.
The USDA conducted a two-day investigation on the night shift. In the final report, the USDA said that the plant was not doing a good job of documenting corrective actions when internal audits found deficiencies. Pfalzgraf said that he agreed with this assessment and the company is working to do a better job on this, but no action was taken against the company.
Pfalzgraf said that processors need to do several things to protect themselves from hidden video, particularly since most of it is staged by the activists. He said that plants need to watch their cadaver rates, even if the rate is only high because of the way condemnations are classified by local USDA at your plant. Plants should get the USDA to do correlations with its inspectors. Team member training regarding animal welfare concerns is crucial according to Pfalzgraf, and this training includes teaching supervisors how to look for suspicious behavior, particularly from new employees. “We need to train employees and supervisors to look out for people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time in the plant, kind of like how security people at the airport look for potential terrorists,” Pfalzgraf said.
It is critical to have an animal welfare-training program, and you have to have employees sign off on it, according to Pfalzgraf. “You need to do audits, document your results and document any corrective action or discipline. This is not just for damage control, if you do this properly, they won’t be able to find anything even if they are in your plant,” he said. “You need to document everything, including training, audits, disciplinary action taken and document the number of broken wings.”
Finally, Pfalzgraf said that the industry needs to work together to make sure that we keep its live-haul cages in proper working order so that birds do not fall off the truck on the way to the plant from the farm. He pointed out that most consumers will never see the inside of a poultry house, but they will see industry trucks rolling down the road, and they should not see birds fall out of them or be left laying on the side of the road. He said, “This may happen to a very small percentage of the birds that are processed each day, but birds on the side of the road are highly visible and leave passersby with the impression that the industry does not care. Is this the impression that we want to leave our customers with?”