Undercover footage at French farm shows ‘deplorable’ conditions for pigs

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Undercover footage published on Thursday appears to show pig cannibalism and other serious issues at a supplier for a Nestle-owned brand of frankfurter sold by most major supermarkets.

Waitrose has suspended the pork products by bestselling French brand Herta while it investigates.

Herta is being sued by campaigners for animal mistreatment and misleading consumers. The brand, which is sold in UK supermarkets, is 60% owned by Spanish food company Casa Tarradellas and 40% by Nestle.

The video footage published by French animal welfare group, L214, appears to show pig cannibalism, dead animals lying in pens, and pigs in overcrowded pens climbing over one other. In one section a sow, which appears to be struggling to stand in a narrow farrowing crate with no bedding, slips and squashes at least one piglet.

L214 has now begun legal action against Herta in France, based on the undercover videos which it said it filmed in June and September this year. The case, according to L214, will centre on Herta’s animal mistreatment and the way it misled the consumer with promises of better welfare.

In its press release L214 said: “Contrary to the commitments made by the brand, the images show deplorable conditions for the pigs that do not comply with regulatory requirements. L214 is filing a complaint for mistreatment of the animals against Herta, the most purchased brand in France, and for misleading the consumer.”

More than 20 pharmaceutical products are shown in the video, including a “last resort” antibiotic called colistin. Colistin is widely used in the pig industry, often to prevent or treat a piglet sickness known as post-weaning diarrhoea.

Waitrose has said it does not permit suppliers to use colistin. It told the Guardian: “We pride ourselves on our high animal welfare standards and our standards around the use of antibiotics. We have therefore taken the decision to suspend all pork products from this brand while we urgently investigate the video footage.”

The World Health Organization has recommended that colistin’s preventive use in healthy animals be halted to preserve the antibiotic as one of the “essential … last-resort treatments for multidrug-resistant infections in humans”.

EU funding from the common agricultural policy for the Herta pig supplier farm, which grows crops and keeps other livestock, totalled about EUR150,000 (GBP135,000) in 2018 and 2019, according to the French government website, Telepac.

The pigs in the video appear to have had their tails docked, a practice outlawed in the EU, other than in exceptional circumstances. No straw or other bedding is seen and the sheds do not appear to have any natural light. The pigs and piglets appear to be covered in faeces. Additional footage by L214 seen by the Guardian appears to show a pig chewing after biting a dead pig’s stomach.

EU law governing pig welfare stipulates they “must have permanent access to” rooting materials “such as straw, hay, wood, sawdust, mushroom compost, peat or a mixture of such … “

A worker loading the pigs for slaughter appears to use an electrical prod and to hit pigs’ backs with a plastic panel. One half-escaped sow is trapped by her hips in the bars of her crate. A piglet appears to have its foot trapped in the slatted floor.

In an email, L214 co-founder Sebastien Arsac accused Herta of “lying” to consumers about pig welfare, and described the pig housing conditions as “squalid … [where] animals spend a life of suffering”.

In an email to the Guardian a spokesperson for Herta said almost 350 French breeders hold a filiere preference contract that commits them to “a continuous improvement process based on animal welfare criteria such as the use of antibiotics, animals restraining conditions or better housing conditions”.

It also said: “Herta has a rigorous purchasing policy with its 40 meat suppliers in Europe. These partners are regularly audited by the company. These companies are, themselves, in contractual links with various groups of European breeders who have the obligation to respect European legislation.”

The video appears to show a sow struggling to stand in a narrow farrowing crate.

In 2019, it said: “More than 120 farm audits were carried out by Herta teams in France. A Herta farm audit includes 42 control points and 17 are specifically dedicated to animal welfare.”

Casa Tarradellas referred the Guardian to Nestle for comment. Nestle said: “We strongly condemn any mistreatment of farm animals. Consumers trust us to hold our suppliers to high standards. Nestle is a minority shareholder in the Herta joint venture.” The company stated that an audit has been carried out which found no issues at the farm in question. This confirmed the findings from a previous audit earlier in the year. “Herta will now send additional investigators to the farm and continue to follow up these allegations to determine if the images were taken there.”

Nestle added: “We will ensure Herta reviews its audit process to identify necessary improvements. Nestle is strongly committed to improving animal welfare in its supply chain.”

The Guardian approached one of the owners of the farm but he did not wish to comment.

o Footnote added 3 December 2020. On 3 December 2020, after this article was published, Nestle announced that supply from the farm to Herta had been suspended pending an investigation to determine the appropriate next steps.

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