U.S. pork producers brace for HBO special on cruelty

DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. pork producers, already worried that high prices for their product may chase pinched shoppers to the chicken section, are facing another possible hit - an HBO special on animal cruelty in factory farming.

Pigs stick out their snouts through a fence at a farm in the countryside on the outskirts of Havana September 18, 2007. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Producers at the annual Pork Industry Forum were discussing the documentary, “Death on a Factory Farm,” which the network plans to premier on March 16 and show 20 times by April 1.

The documentary, based on a video taken by the Humane Farming Association, an animal rights group, “takes a harrowing look at animal cruelty in an Ohio factory farm as chronicled through undercover footage,” the HBO website said.

Owners of the Ohio farm were charged with animal cruelty following six weeks of secret filming of events there.

The video also contains footage of the trial where representatives of the pork industry gave testimony detailing acceptable hog care practices, Tom Simon, co-producer of the documentary, told Reuters.

Steve Weaver, president of the National Pork Board, told the forum on Thursday that “our detractors and special interest groups have begun to focus on specific production practices and to challenge our industry on our commitment to animal care.”

Weaver conceded that some producers do not adhere to the best industry practices, “and sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot.”

But Cindy Cunningham of the National Pork Board said “there are 75,000 hog farms across the country and what happened on this farm is not common practice.”

Jim McWade, director of procurement with Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize, said the HBO documentary would draw the attention of fellow retailers.

“I think you will see retailers pay much more attention to it (animal welfare), particularly with some of the recent topics that have surfaced or an HBO special that is coming up shortly. You will see retailers respond to it,” McWade told Reuters.

McWade said he believed retailers will align themselves with pork producers and suppliers that pay more attention to how hogs are raised.

Animal rights groups have forced changes to how animals are treated or handled in some states.

California’s Proposition 2 that was passed last fall phases out some of the most restrictive animal confinement practices of factory farms.

The Pork Board has planned delegate meetings at the forum to discuss quality assurance rules including animal handling, and how much money to allocate to promote animal welfare.

“Our Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Transport Quality Assurance Programs are designed to demonstrate the care we are giving to our animals everyday on our farms,” Cunningham said.

“It’s not as much about what the animal rights activists are saying about how we are raising pigs as opposed to us demonstrating that we do care and we are giving the best possible care” she said.

Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago; editing by Jim Marshall