Norwegian farmers’ carefully cultivated image of taking good care of their animals in almost idyllic settings was shattered Wednesday night. An NRK documentary revealed widespread animal abuse among those raising pork, along with cynical attitudes among farmers who were well aware they were violating Norway’s animal welfare regulations, and seemed immune to the suffering they inflicted on screaming pigs.
Animals at all 13 farms where an undercover reporter filmed and recorded operations over a five-year period are shown as being regularly beaten, denied treatment when they fell ill and even castrated with no use of sedatives or pain killers. Some farmers, whose brutality was filmed with hidden cameras by a young woman posing as someone interested in raising pork herself, intentionally left ill and injured animals to die slow and painful deaths, instead of relieving them of their suffering.
It was a shocking departure from the farmers’ own promotional campaigns and meat industry advertisements that glorify “the Norwegian farmer,” and show animals freely grazing outdoors in scenic landscapes, well-tended by their owners.
Leaders of Norway’s powerful farmers’ lobby, the meat cooperative Nortura, and the food safety authority Mattilsynet were all visibly disturbed during a panel discussion that immediately followed the documentary aired Wednesday night on NRK’s investigative program Brennpunkt. Agriculture Minister Olaug Bollestad, whose Christian Democrats party is among those supporting Norway’s huge subsidies and tariff protection for farmers, said later that she was “angry and disappointed” after watching the program.
“This was a gruesome sight,” Bollestad told state broadcaster NRK. “I’m both angry and disappointed, because I expected more from the farmers. The first thing I’m going to do is call in the industry’s representatives next week.”
They’ve just government approval for yet another supplement to their billions of kroner worth of taxpayer support allocated annually in the state budget. They project an image of themselves and their farms that’s far from the painful reality revealed in the documentary of overcrowded and filthy pig pens with cold concrete floors and walls.
On Thursday, the Gilde meat division of Norway’s meat and poultry coop Nortura, even continued efforts to further that positive image of “the Norwegian farmer.” Gilde ran full-page, double-spread ads in major newspapers including Aftenposten and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) in which it continued to claim that “Norway has today perhaps the world’s healthiest pigs … thanks to restrictive use of antibiotics, good breeding procedures and the Norwegian farmer.” It conceded that “reports from last summer showed us that some don’t operate as they should,” but Gilde claimed corrective measures had since been taken.
The horrific revelations in the new documentary bring such ongoing claims into question. They also follow a rash of serious violations of animal welfare recently revealed by state agricultural inspectors as well. That suggests these aren’t just isolated cases of abuse but rather systematic animal neglect and mishandling, and what Bollestad now fears is a “bad culture” among the pork producers. Several of the farmers, not knowing they were being recorded and filmed, admitted they were committing a long list of state violations: “I’d be prevented from ever being able to have animals again,” one farmer said, if state regulators gained real insight into his operation.
Now they have. While the use of hidden cameras and tape recorders is controversial itself, most agreed Wednesday night that it was necessary in order to reveal day-to-day reality at the pork producers and some slaughterhouses. Regulators at Mattilsynet even noted that they never would have been able to reveal the actual practices of the farmers that the use of hidden cameras did, even when they arrive for unannounced inspections.
Documentary ‘painful to watch’
Neither the identities of the farmers nor the locations of their farms were revealed, beyond text on the video describing them as being somewhere in “central Norway.” Meat producer Nortura, which serves as a market regulator and buys meat from the farmers involved, was able to identify the farmers though, allowing the farmers’ coop to seek police charges “for unacceptable violations of animal welfare laws.”
André Skjelstad, farm policy spokesman for the Liberal Party that generally supports farmers, called the documentary “really painful” to watch. “When you see how the animals were handled, you have to question the attitudes among these pork producers,” Skjelstad said, “because this was just awful.”
Live Kleveland of the animal rights organization Dyrevernalliansen also found the NRK program, produced by Piraya Film, “painful to watch.” She added, however, that she wasn’t surprised because she’s already been made aware of many farmers’ cynicism and disregard for their animals, who were treated as “things” instead of living beings.
Kleveland blames overproduction that has led to lower prices and a system of “producing the most meat for the least amount money.” She called on state authorities, the government and the agriculture ministry to rather encourage lower production but better quality.
‘Have no place in the business’
Another animal rights organization, NOAH, called for surveillance cameras in the slaughterhouses. “Publicly available recordings will provide a realistic picture of what animals are subjected to,” said veterinarian NOAH leader Siri Martinsen.
She wasn’t surprised by all the beatings and other forms of violence against the animals, which included the heavy animals pulling them by their ears and tails. “Mass production of meat leads to violence against animals,” Martinsen said. “Animals are subjected to a series of assaults in the agriculture industry, that they naturally try to defend themselves against.”
Lars Petter Bartnes, leader of the large national farmers’ organization Norges Bondelag, conceded that the abuse documented on the NRK program was unacceptable. “It’s the farmers’ responsibility to see to it that animals are well-treated and that regulations are followed,” a chagrined Bartnes said after the program aired. “Farmers who don’t choose to accept that responsibility have no place in the business.”