National nonprofit animal advocacy group Mercy For Animals released undercover video Wednesday of the conditions inside a Minnesota farm that supplies Costco, Walmart and Kmart with pork.
Mercy For Animals says its footage shows proof of cruelty at Christensen Farms in Hanska, Minn.
Among the group's allegations are that Christensen Farms:
"Many of these pigs were suffering from wounds and open sores -- and pressure sores from rubbing up against their metal bars or the concrete floors of their cages," said Matt Rice, an undercover investigator and director of investigations for Mercy for Animals.
The undercover video also highlights the use of gestation crates, which confine pregnant pigs in tight cages. The crates have been banned in Europe and in nine U.S. states.
At a news conference in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Mercy For Animals called for Walmart to ends its supplier relationship with Christensen Farms and adopt new animal welfare guidelines in their business practices.
"The hidden cost of Walmart's cheap products is blatant animal abuse," said MFA's executive director, Nathan Runkle. "No animal should suffer a lifetime locked in a crate so small she can't even turn around or lie down comfortably. It's high time that Walmart took meaningful action to ensure that the animals raised and killed for its stores do not endure lives filled with pain and misery."
Food giants like McDonalds and Burger King, grocers like Whole Foods and producers like Hormel have implemented policies to phase out gestation crates. After viewing the video with Mercy For Animals, Costco and Kmart joined the group of grocers phasing out the tight sow pens.
"At the eleventh hour of learning about our investigation on Monday, Costco followed our recommendations of Mercy for Animals and is now calling its pork suppliers to phase out inherently cruel gestational crates from its supply chain," Rice said. "Mercy for Animals commends Costco for taking this important step."
Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety at Costco said the American Swine Veterinary Society and American Veterinary Association reviewed the video, and they didn't see signs of animal abuse.
But that doesn't mean Costco doesn't have any interest in policy changes. Wilson said a letter was sent to Costco suppliers in June asking them to work on new solutions and alternatives to gestation crates by 2022. That same letter was also given to Costco managers and made available to members.
A portion of that letter:
Our members have shown concern about animal welfare. All of us at Costco take these concerns seriously.
Lately there has been a focus on how farmers treat their pregnant sows. When it comes to the housing of sows, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians have shown both group housing and gestation stalls have advantages and disadvantages.
Here's what animal welfare experts, including Dr. Temple Grandin, tell us about the use of gestation stalls to house pregnant sows. While group housing offers more space for the sows, when certain breeds of pigs share a space, they can become aggressive, with dominant sows physically attacking others, biting them and stealing their food. Maternity pens were designed to protect sows from this bullying when they are most vulnerable, during their pregnancies.
Protecting the pregnant sows from such behavior can also result in circumstances that are not ideal. Dr. Grandin reminds us that "the issue is the lack of free movement for the sow".
Costco and Dr. Grandin are "Encouraging industry to be innovative in the design and implementation of group housing for pregnant sows."
In making changes, Wilson said there's a lot that needs to come together to create a solution that works for the sows and for small farmers.
"The pork complex is so big in Minnesota," Wilson said. "We want to make sure the small farmer is covered."
"Animal welfare is very important to Costco, but when we look at this particular video and we see what the professionals have said about the video, I think this is interesting," Wilson said.
The Mercy For Animals video is narrated by Bob Barker, the former host of The Price Is Right and a vocal supporter of animal rights.
Walmart has not yet responded to a request for comment.