Video showing cruelty at Tyson chicken farms prompts firings

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — An animal rights group on Thursday released an undercover video that shows Tyson Foods workers abusing and cruelly killing chickens at Virginia breeding facilities, prompting the company to fire 10 employees.

"We're disgusted by a video showing improper treatment of birds," the Arkansas company tweeted to its nearly 50,000 followers.

Christine Daugherty, a Tyson vice president, wrote in a statement that she was "outraged." She said the workers "were all trained in proper animal handling, yet chose to ignore it."

The company said it will "aggressively re-emphasize" its animal welfare policies to workers and end a practice known as "boning." It involves inserting a piece of plastic in a male bird's nostrils to stop it from accessing a female chicken's feeder.

The film released by the Washington, D.C.-based group Compassion Over Killing is one of several taken in recent months at poultry facilities. Animal rights groups contend the industry still treats animals inhumanely despite publicity over more compassionate practices, such as adding windows to poultry houses.

(Warning: Video may be considered graphic. Viewer discretion is advised.)

"There is no doubt that there is increasing national dialogue," said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion over Killing. "But when you look at the undercover footage coming out, it's evident that animal cruelty remains a standard practice in the chicken industry."

The three minutes of footage show workers smacking fluffy white chickens and swinging them by their legs and wings. One worker steps on a bird's throat as it appears to suffocate. Chickens are crammed into cages. Some are crushed under vehicles.

"The best way we can protect chickens, and all animals, is simply to leave them off our plates," the film's narrator said.

Animal control officers in the southern Virginia counties where the Tyson facilities are located — Buckingham, Lunenberg and Mecklenburg — confirmed to The Associated Press that they are investigating allegations of animal abuse in the wake of the video.

In recent years, the poultry industry has gone through well-publicized changes. They include phasing out the use of antibiotics in meat consumed by humans and finding gentler ways of inducing unconsciousness before slaughter.

John Glisson, vice president of research at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, said consumer demand and research have brought about those changes, not undercover videos.

"That's not an impetus for change; it's an impetus for managing people," he said of the Virginia footage.

Glisson said the industry continues to research better ways to treat animals, such as regulating temperatures in trucks as chickens are transported during winter and summer months.

"The poultry industry is working very hard to do the right thing, but it's not a snap finger deal," he said. "It's going to take some time."

Statement from Tyson Foods:

This past week we were made aware of a video produced by an animal and vegetarian advocacy group that shows improper treatment of birds by some of our employees on chicken breeder farms in Virginia.  We are disgusted by the actions of the individuals in the video.  We do not tolerate this type of activity, and all of the employees in the video have been fired.  It was an obvious decision given that the entire crew was trained in proper animal handling yet chose to ignore it and failed to alert management of the mistreatment.

In addition to firing these individuals, we are taking the following actions:

- Over the next few days, we will be meeting with everyone in poultry operations who handles live birds to aggressively re-emphasize the importance of proper animal handling and the consequences of not complying with the company’s animal welfare policies.

- We have already reached out to local authorities who will decide whether to pursue criminal charges against these individuals, and we will fully cooperate with their investigation.

- The practice of beak modification shown in the video is a historical way the industry has used to keep males from eating food intended for females and we have been eliminating its use. It had been stopped at all but two chicken operations and now has been immediately discontinued at those two locations as well.

While we already have animal well-being audit and training programs, we believe we haven’t gone far enough and must do more to stop this inexcusable behavior. We’re evaluating additional steps we can take to make sure animal well-being procedures are being followed throughout our chicken operations. Once we complete our investigation into this matter, we intend to implement any measures necessary to protect the well-being of the birds being raised for our company.

More information about our commitment to animal well-being can be found here: http://bit.ly/AnimalWB

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