Livestock producers defend practices animal-rights groups criticize

Depending on whom you ask, livestock farms house healthy, contented animals or dirty, little secrets.

Producers of beef, eggs and other products are defending their industries against accusations from animal-rights groups, some armed with undercover video cameras.

Tuesday, a group called Mercy for Animals alleged that laying hens at Gemperle Farms of Turlock have been pushed roughly into cages and otherwise abused by workers.

Wednesday, the Humane Society of the United States charged that sick and injured cattle were mistreated at auction sites and stockyards in four states.

In January, the same group alleged that cattle at a Chino slaughterhouse were shoved with forklifts, shocked with electric prods and sprayed in the face with water.

The industries have a two-part response: Any worker doing such things should be punished, and these abuses are very rare.

"We work with these animals every day and try to provide proper care for them," said Turlock-area dairy farmer Ray Souza, president of Western United Dairymen. "It's not in our business interest to abuse these animals."

Dairy is the top-grossing farm sector in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and statewide. And it's not just the milk. Cows that no longer are productive are sold to meat processors.

Souza said the dairy industry has guidelines to assure that these animals are treated humanely on the farm, at the stockyard and slaughterhouse, and during transport between these places.

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Ballot measure targets small hen cages

The region's egg industry has been getting much of the recent attention from animal-rights groups. They are backing a November ballot measure that would phase out the small cages used for most hens in California.

Gemperle Farms, a major egg producer, has come in for especially strong criticism from Mercy for Animals, based in Chicago, and Farm Sanctuary, based in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Both groups said they have video evidence of abuses.

Company President Steve Gemperle did not return several calls from The Modesto Bee this week. He did tell The Sacramento Bee earlier in the week that the company "doesn't tolerate the abuse of animals."

Gemperle also questioned whether the video released by Mercy for Animals was taken at his operation.

Nathan Runkle, the group's executive director, said the video was made by an investigator who posed as a maintenance employee at two of Gemperle's farms. And, he said, this was not the only such case.

"We have reason to believe that this is the industry norm rather than the exception," Runkle said.

Similarly, Farm Sanctuary said on its Web site that these abuses "are par for the course in egg factory farms all over the U.S."

But the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association, responding to the Mercy for Animals video, said this kind of treatment is "inconsistent, out of practice and in violation of our high standards for animal welfare."

Livestock abuses are "isolated cases" that should be dealt with firmly, said Chuck Conner, deputy secretary of agriculture under President Bush, during a phone interview Friday.

Conner, who grew up on an Indiana farm that raised cattle, corn and soybeans, said livestock lose marketable weight when they are stressed.

"It's really a matter of simple economics," he said. "I think the vast majority of producers and handlers of these animals do treat them well."

Oakdale-area rancher Bill Jackson, a past president of the California Beef Council, said his industry could not thrive if it mistreated cattle.

"The bottom line is the beef producers realize that the beef clientele is the consumer, and the consumer doesn't want to see that," he said.

Keep teaching about humane treatment

The debate over confining and slaughtering animals is nothing new, but it has taken on another dimension with the emergence of small video cameras and the Internet.

Jackson said the cameras have become part of the arsenal of industry critics. The answer, he said, is to keep educating producers on humane treatment of livestock.

"If you do that, nobody is going to have a video to take," he said.

Poultry operations these days take place mostly in locked, windowless barns, a precaution against avian influenza and other diseases.

Cattle, on the other hand, spend much of their time in view of people driving by the dairy farms and ranches. No one has to fake a job application to see what's going on.

Souza said dairy cows have access to shade and to clean, soft bedding, though they sometimes choose to stand in the sun or in mud.

"I don't think cows have ever been as well-treated, as far as their day to day life, as they are now," he said.

As comfortable as life can be for farm animals, there is no getting around this fact: They are raised for people's use. That means taking milk and eggs from them during their lives, and killing them when the time comes.

Many industry people say the real goal of animal-rights groups is to get consumers to stop eating meat and other livestock products.

Mercy for Animals doesn't dispute this. You can click on its Web site to order a "vegetarian starter kit."

"We unapologetically promote a vegetarian diet," Runkle said, "but we also are realists and understand that not everyone is ready to make that decision."