News and analysis on the global poultry
and animal feed industries.

Food Safety and Processing Perspective

Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director, provides his perspective on everything from animal agriculture trends that impact our food chain to food-safety related issues affecting chicken and egg production. O’Keefe has covered the poultry industry as an editor for more than a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and poultry production to comment on today’s issues.

Anthropomorphism runs wild in latest Butterball undercover video

June 5, 2014

About 30 seconds into the latest Mercy for Animals “undercover video” of a Butterball turkey hatchery in Raeford, North Carolina, the narration attempts to draw a contrast between a poult being hatched in a hatchery versus being brooded by the hen.  “When they hatch, turkeys at this Butterball hatchery are roughly separated from their shells. Instead of the warm and comforting touch of their mothers, these baby birds are greeted with cold metal,” the narrator said.

So, I guess the standard they want to judge a hatchery against is how the hatchery treatment varies from the “warm comforting touch of their mothers.” I’m not sure how one quantifies this. Perhaps we can look to some examples from nature?

In the video, the movement of poults from boxes to conveyors or from conveyor to conveyor, whether by machine or by workers, is described as rough treatment for “these newborn birds.” I’d like to put the jostling that poults in a hatchery “endure” when being transferred about in the hatchery into perspective.

National Geographic Magazine ran an article decades ago, which unfortunately I can’t seem to find online, about Giant Canada Geese nesting on the Grand Bluffs along the Missouri River. The significance of this is that the bluffs are up to 300 feet above the river’s floodplain at the base of the bluffs, this keeps the goslings safe from many predators, but there is a catch.

Geese, like turkeys, have precocial young which leave the nest very shortly after hatch and forage for food. You can’t do much foraging on top of a dolomite rock cliff, so the parents push their goslings out of the nest and off the cliff; you know the “warm comforting touch of their mothers.” Remember, goslings can’t fly when they hatch; they kind of bounce when they hit the ground, and most survive. I think of these goslings whenever I see chicks or poults moved about in a hatchery or gently dumped out of a box onto the litter at a farm.

About halfway through the video the subject of beak and toe trimming, which is “done without painkillers,” is brought up. The Raeford hatchery employs infrared beak trimming and microwave toe trimming, and both of these are leading-edge technologies adopted because they were advances on prior techniques. I guess the fact that the poults are vocalizing “peeps” that in turkeys are called the “kee kee” is supposed to signify distress. Anyone who has been around poults knows that this “kee kee” is the call made by poults under a number of different scenarios including, I’m hungry, I’m lost, or in response to seeing what they have imprinted on as “mom.”

There was some video footage where single poults, unfortunately, got hung up in pinch points on conveyors, but that was really it. Showing a picture of a poult that is deformed at hatch isn’t an example of animal cruelty -- embryonic development isn’t 100 percent perfect all of the time. In this hatchery, a macerator is used in the egg separation room to humanely euthanize malformed poults. Carbon dioxide is used in the poult processing area to euthanize poults culled there. Both of these processes are approved as humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

This particular undercover video didn’t show any animal abuse and shouldn’t get any traction. The poultry industry needs to continue to look critically at all of its animal handling and care practices from a science basis, but it needs to view these practices through the eyes of the average consumer. The optics of every procedure should be considered, not just the efficacy. The industry needs to strive to reach a point where every breeder farm, hatchery, grow-out farm or processing plant could be on a live webcam 24/7 for the entire world to see.

Comments powered by Disqus