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Vehicles are seen Wednesday near the exterior of Willmar Poultry Company's Willmar facility. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Mistreatment of turkeys at Willmar hatchery is alleged by Humane Society

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region Park Rapids,Minnesota 56470
Park Rapids Enterprise
Mistreatment of turkeys at Willmar hatchery is alleged by Humane Society
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

WILLMAR -- An undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States has documented what the organization alleges is routine abuse and cruelty involving newly hatched turkey chicks at Willmar Poultry Co.


The Humane Society released its report and findings Tuesday.

The nonprofit organization is calling for the turkey industry to adopt more humane practices for disposing of sick and injured birds and for de-beaking baby turkeys.

"Most people don't want animals to be treated cruelly," said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Willmar Poultry Co. said it was committed to meeting or exceeding science-based industry standards for the welfare of its turkeys.

"Willmar Poultry Company is a family-owned business. At WPC, we believe in the humane treatment of turkeys and aspire to do this throughout the company, including the raising, breeding, hatching and transporting of all our turkeys," Richard VanderSpek, president and chief operating officer, said in a prepared statement.

An undercover investigator with the Humane Society of the United States worked at Willmar Poultry for 11 days in October, using a hidden camera to record how baby turkeys were treated.

Willmar Poultry was targeted for the investigation because "it's the largest turkey hatchery in the nation," Shapiro said.

"We've done several investigations at factory farms and slaughter plants but this is our first investigation at a turkey hatchery," he said.

He said the Humane Society of the United States "wanted to shine the light on this part of their lives that few people are familiar with -- the very first day of their lives."

Among the allegations contained in the Humane Society of the United States report:

- Sick, deformed, injured and dying birds, as well as "leftovers" not needed for buyers' orders, are routinely disposed of by being thrown alive into a grinder.

- Sick and injured birds are left in boxes or on the floor all day until being killed.

- Chicks are routinely de-beaked without first being given a painkiller.

- Chicks routinely have their back toes clipped off without a painkiller.

The report alleges that baby turkeys get trapped and injured in conveyor belts as they're processed for shipment to farms. It also alleges that boxes filled with poults are sometimes stacked too high or unevenly and crash to the floor, scattering and injuring the turkey chicks inside.

Although the report was issued just two days before Thanksgiving, the peak time for turkey consumption in the U.S., the timing wasn't deliberate, Shapiro said. "It's just how it worked out," he said.

The Humane Society of the United States is calling for more humane methods of handling sick and injured chicks. These birds should be promptly and humanely euthanized rather than left on the floor until the end of the day, Shapiro said.

The Humane Society of the United States also is urging the turkey industry to adopt more humane practices for de-beaking and declawing newly hatched poults.

The organization said there are no current federal laws governing the treatment of baby turkeys.

VanderSpek said Willmar Poultry Co. has policies and procedures for all aspects of turkey welfare.

Employees receive training and can face discipline if they don't follow policy, he said.

The undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States does appear to identify actions by some employees that violate Willmar Poultry Co. animal welfare policies, he said. "We condemn any mistreatment of animals in our care and will take swift action to investigate and address those issues."

He said Willmar Poultry also will review its policies, procedures, employee training and site monitoring to help make sure employees understand and follow the company's animal welfare policies and procedures.

VanderSpek said the standards used at Willmar Poultry include the National Turkey Federation's animal care guidelines, which are science-based and supported by the Federation of Animal Science Societies Animal Welfare Committee, the American Association of Avian Pathologists welfare subcommittee and the AAAP board of directors. National Turkey Federation guidelines also comply with World Organization for Animal Health standards, he said.

According to its website, Willmar Poultry Co. produces 45 million eggs a year, making it the largest turkey hatchery in the United States. Thirty million poults are hatched each year in Willmar and another 15 million at a custom hatchery in Foley, Minn. The company has been an innovator in poultry genetics, biotechnology and engineering.

The Humane Society of the United States report prompted the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker counties to issue a statement Tuesday reminding the public that the local humane society is neither affiliated with nor receives funding from the Humane Society of the United States.

"While we deplore animal cruelty, our focus is on companion animals and not on any alleged industry abuses," the local organization said in a statement.