03/16/2014 08:32 EDT | Updated 05/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Maple Leaf Foods 'Disturbed' By Supplier Turkey Farm Video, Promises Action

Maple Leaf Foods, one of Canada’s largest meat companies, is taking action after a CBC Marketplace investigation revealed disturbing hidden camera footage recorded at an Ontario turkey breeding barn.

The footage was secretly recorded over two months at Hybrid Turkeys by a member of the animal rights group Mercy for Animals Canada who was hired by the company. The raw video, released exclusively to Marketplace, shows birds with large open wounds, failed euthanizations and an employee advising the undercover worker to kick birds.

One of several euthanizations caught on tape shows an employee hitting a bird repeatedly with several objects, including a shovel, over the course of several minutes after an initial attempt to use an authorized tool failed.

After the Marketplace episode aired, Maple Leaf pledged to act on the allegations, including conducting welfare audits.  

"We saw the video on Marketplace for the first time. We are very disturbed by the abuse shown – it violates our animal welfare policies and requirements of our suppliers, who receive eggs from Hybrid to grow their turkeys,” spokesperson David Bauer wrote in a statement.

“We have discussed this serious issue with Hybrid, who have confirmed that they are implementing tough new animal welfare requirements of all their employees. We will be conducting ongoing audits to ensure that they adhere to their new animal welfare policies and procedures."

Company says incidents ‘isolated’

Hybrid responded to the allegations detailed in the Marketplace investigation by suspending four employees, including a supervisor, launching an internal investigation and committing to video surveillance of bird euthanization.

“We feel this is an isolated incident,” Hybrid’s Helen Wojcinski told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson. “Employees have been trained. They know what they're supposed to do. There is obviously a lapse. There's been a mistake made here.”

When Marketplace initially contacted Maple Leaf about the allegations, the company sent a statement supporting Hybrid’s assertion that the video depicted “an isolated incident” and commending Hybrid “for the swift and severe actions they are taking to address this issue.”

However, after seeing the footage in the Marketplace episode, the company pledged further action.

The Ontario Provincial Police and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are also investigating the incident.

Abuse ‘violates our animal welfare policies’

Maple Leaf is one of Canada’s largest turkey processors, selling fresh and deli meat under its Schneiders, Maple Leaf Prime, Natural Selections and Deli-Fresh labels. Maple Leaf does not own any commercial turkey farms, but its suppliers obtain their turkey breeding stock from Hybrid farms.

In response to growing consumer concerns about animal welfare on farms, Maple Leaf has a public animal welfare policy, which states:

“Everyone involved in the raising and processing of animals and poultry, from producers and transport workers to all of our employees, are required to adhere to good animal handling practices in accordance with industry guidelines, serving as stewards of the animals entrusted to their care."

The policy also says that the company will take "appropriate disciplinary action against any producers or third-party suppliers who violate animal welfare practices, which may include the termination of contracts."

No inspections for welfare on most farms

Most farms in Canada are not subject to mandatory government inspections for animal welfare. And while some welfare certification programs exist, none monitor the treatment of animals on farms that supply commercial farms.

“There’s a gaping hole in the system with regard to monitoring and inspection of these farms across Canada,” said Geoff Urton with the B.C. SPCA. “There’s not much being done right now and it’s a major concern.”

Animal welfare and cruelty laws are enforced in most provinces by societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. But most can only respond to complaints, which has made hidden camera investigations a common tool for animal rights groups.

Similar investigations in the U.S. have prompted some states to pass anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” laws which prohibit people from taking pictures or video on farms without permission.

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