Acknowledging possible violations of its animal welfare policies, the company said it might use the undercover video to retrain employees.
The Humane Society of the United States is accusing a mammoth hatchery in central Minnesota of abusing baby turkeys as it winnows out those unworthy of America's dining tables.
An investigator whom the society sent to work undercover for 11 days last month at Willmar Poultry Co., the nation's largest turkey hatchery, captured video images of practices that included workers tossing sick, injured or surplus animals into grinding machines while still alive.
Willmar said much of what the video shows is acceptable industry practice but acknowledged that some of its employees' actions appear to "violate the company's animal welfare policies."
Company President Rick VanderSpek said he might use the video to retrain employees.
In releasing the video two days before Thanksgiving, the society said it documents a variety of mistreatment of poults, or day-old turkeys. Workers amputated parts of turkeys' toes and snoods without painkillers, according to the society, and jammed their heads into a machine that sears off parts of their beaks with lasers.
The society, which picked Willmar to investigate because of its size, said workers also threw sick or injured poults into plastic bins or left them suffering on the floor.
"Our latest investigation exposes a callous disregard for animal welfare in the turkey industry," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society. "It's unacceptable for workers to leave injured and non-ambulatory animals to suffer on the floor for hours on end, only to then send them to their deaths in a grinder."
After viewing the video, Vanderspek said that "birds on the floor are just not acceptable. Grabbing a whole lot of birds ... they are going to drop birds handling them like that."
The undercover employee "obviously found things that we might not have seen," he said. "We might use this as a training tool. ... We've got to just slow the process down and train people properly."
Vanderspek said that the video also showed a production line carousel holding too many poults. "We don't like to see that. We've instructed our supervisors about that. ... We' re not getting the job done, and we've got to do better."
Sally Noll, a poultry expert with the University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science, said that disposal of live poults by grinding is "a fairly common practice" that is carried out with high-speed equipment. "Death is instantaneous," Noll said.
As for some of the society's other contentions, Noll said an infrared laser is used on the tip of the beak, allowing it to "gradually wear down" over five to 10 days. Noll added that microwave energy is applied to the poults' toenails to deaden tissue. She said these methods are virtually pain-free and prevent the birds from harming one another.
"In poultry production, if [animal welfare experts] looked at that video they would not take any issue with the facility or the activities that go on there," Martin said. "They're pretty much industry standards."
Willmar Poultry, founded in 1945, hatches about 30 million poults a year at its Willmar facility and another 15 million in Foley, Minn.
Along with Cargill, its customers also include Sara Lee Foods, Farbest Farms and independent turkey growers, making up about 40 percent of what the turkey industry produces. "Almost every brand of turkeys could have some of our poults," Vanderspek said.
The Humane Society, the nation's largest organization combating animal cruelty, wants hatcheries to adopt more humane practices, such as controlled-atmosphere killing or stunning.
These systems use a mix of gases to painlessly kill or render birds unconscious before they are removed from their transport crates. The society says these methods eliminate abusive handling and shackling, and ensure that the birds aren't conscious when their throats are cut. The society says there are no federal laws that address how poults are handled in processing. Calls to various federal agencies found none that have jurisdiction.
Star Tribune staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482