The big story of the week was the surreptitious videotaping of chickens being abused by employees of Pilgrim's Pride, a supplier to KFC, at its Moorefield, WV, plant. The video showed sickening, pitiful episodes of chickens being thrown and kicked, tobacco being spit into their mouths and eyes, beaks being torn off, etc.
There's no doubt the activities captured on film released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are simply despicable and wrong. Of course, such abuses lead consumers to question whether the incident is a one-time abhorrent act or something typical of the system.
This type of abuse legitimizes the more extremist elements of the animal rights movement and dramatically increases their political acceptability. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this incident is that it restores the credibility of a fringe group like PETA.
Over the last 10 months, the overwhelming majority of press coverage of PETA had essentially served to frame the group to consumers as a radical activist group. PETA's poultry abuse videotape, however, helps to paint the group as something more mainstream, and an organization with an honorable and necessary mission.
After the videotape was released, Pilgrim's Pride terminated a total of 11 employees, including one superintendent, one supervisor, one foreman and eight hourly employees, for violating its animal welfare rules. The firm also hired Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University professor famous for her animal handling expertise, to help make sure proper animal handling procedures are in place.
On its Web site, Pilgrim's Pride says its animal welfare program "is designed to eliminate unnecessary harm and suffering for animals in the day-to-day operation of our production processes."
The firm says it:
- Developed programs that promote generally accepted standards for the welfare and humane treatment of animals,
- Has implemented the guidelines for animal welfare issued by the major U.S. poultry trade associations,
- And has a documented training program for all involved in handling live animals.
Grandin has mentioned many times in the pages of BEEF magazine that management is all-important in ensuring that good animal handling is practiced. Not only must a policy be in place, but its tenets must be strongly and consistently presented to underlings. Then, those same managers must be unceasingly vigilant in making sure workers fully exercise that policy.
For its part, KFC says it will audit Pilgrim's Pride plants with more vigor. There's no escaping the fact, however, that all the actions taken by the parties involved were reactionary in nature. After all, it's very difficult to go on the offensive when there is no defense.