Slaughterhouses reopen but farmers still euthanizing pigs
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Meatpacking plants that had to briefly close due to coronavirus outbreaks have been back up and running for weeks, but production backlogs are forcing farmers to euthanize thousands of hogs that can't be processed, drawing complaints from animal welfare advocates.
In Iowa, where nearly one-third of the nation's hogs are raised, the temporary closure of slaughterhouses led to a backup of about 600,000 pigs, state Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said. Those plants now are operating at about 80% capacity, but that's not enough to clear the backlog, and efforts to sell directly to consumers or process hogs at small slaughterhouses for donation to food banks aren't enough to avoid euthanizing some animals.
Adding to the problem was the temporary closure Thursday of another hog processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, because of a coronavirus outbreak.
"That backlog is larger than those solutions can address, so producers are already having to and will continue to have to look at the very difficult and emotional decision to euthanize their animals to prevent animal welfare issues," Naig said.
Farmers say they're left with no choice but to euthanize hogs because they haven't been able to ship out some animals for more than a month, and as they become larger and young pigs grow, there isn't enough space in the buildings that house them.
Slaughterhouses also aren't designed to efficiently process hogs once they get too large, so farmers have few options.
The preferred methods of euthanizing hogs include gunshots, bolt guns or electrocution, but when thousands of animals must be destroyed en masse, one option is to shut off ventilation causing heat to build up and kill them, said Chris Rademacher, a veterinarian and associate director of Iowa State University's Iowa Pork Industry Center.
Farmers must consider the physical and emotional toll it would take on employees to have to shoot or electrocute thousands of hogs individually, Rademacher said.
"There's a mental strain to have to individually repeat this potentially thousands of times," he said. "We're sailing in uncharted waters in the truest sense here."
Last week, the animal welfare group Direct Action Everyone placed cameras in a hog operation in Grundy County, Iowa, and recorded the killing of hogs using heat. In the video, pigs can be heard squealing and workers are later shown walking among carcasses and using bolt guns to kill animals that remain alive.
The organization filed a criminal livestock neglect complaint with the Grundy County Sheriff's Office and on Friday released excerpts of the video.
"An element of good that has emerged from the ravages of COVID-19, and of this investigation, is that the longstanding systemic abuses of animal agriculture have been openly exposed for the world to see," Matt Johnson, the group's leader, said.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also blasted the practice of using heat to kill hogs.
"Steaming pigs alive and roasting them to death show that cruelty to animals is a part of pig farmers' way of life, and the only way to stop this — given that pig farmers have made themselves above the law — is for people to run from buying pork, screaming as loudly as the pigs scream in the barns.," Newkirk said in a statement.
The sheriff's office declined to charge the operation, owned by Iowa Select Farms, and on Friday Sheriff Rick Penning confirmed he charged Johnson and a woman from Indiana with trespass, a simple misdemeanor. Court dates were set for August.
Iowa Select Farms owner Jeff Hansen said his company worked with animal welfare experts, veterinarians and technicians to oversee the process after making "the painful decision to euthanize some of our herd."
"It is no surprise that, at this most difficult moment, an animal activist group is attempting to use this to promote their own agenda," he said. "We are in tremendous pain knowing that this awful decision had to be made. Recording and releasing video of the euthanasia process only reinforces the hurt our team feels."
Iowa Select Farms markets more than 4 million hogs a year on 800 farms in 50 counties in Iowa.
Naig also criticized the video.
"I think that our producers are experiencing an unprecedented disruption in their business and their way of life and we've got folks with a clear agenda and they're kicking our farmers when they're down," Naig said.
An estimated 2.5 million hogs nationwide have not been sent to slaughterhouses because of the pandemic, and about 100,000 per week are added to the backlog, Neil Dierks, CEO of the National Pork Producers Council, said during a news conference Thursday.
"We haven't gotten to the point of stasis on this where the current market-ready hogs can get processed," he said.
Chad Leman, a hog farmer in Eureka, Illinois, said he had 4,000 pigs backed up on his farm and that the packers he sells to are operating at 75% capacity.
"Unless they can somehow figure out to miraculously harvest about 130% of their usual capacity we will continue to back up pigs albeit at a slightly slower pace," he said. "What's important to understand is you can't just shut the spigot off and turn it back on with pork production."