Chicago Tribune: “Sen. Dick Durbin urges stronger oversight of Illinois hog farming”

Sen. Dick Durbin urges stronger oversight of Illinois hog farming

David Jackson and Gary MarxContact Reporters

Illinois must do more to protect livestock animals from abuse and mistreatment inside the large confinement facilities where they are raised for slaughter, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin told the Tribune on Wednesday.

The Democrat from Illinois, reacting to an ongoing Tribune investigation that found Illinois officials do little to investigate worker allegations of animal cruelty inside Illinois’ 900-plus hog facilities, urged more vigorous oversight by state officials and the industry.

"The mistreatment of these animals by the operators identified in the Tribune series hurts smaller farms, their employees, and the surrounding communities," Durbin said. "There’s no excuse for the cruelty being reported by the Tribune. Any reports of animal cruelty should be thoroughly investigated and those operators held accountable."

The Tribune used workers’ compensation claims, court records and state animal abuse reports — as well as more than a dozen on-the-record worker interviews — to document reports of abusive treatment in some leading Illinois pig confinements.

The workers told the Tribune they witnessed fellow employees whip pigs with metal rods and gouge them with pliers and ballpoint pens to hurry the animals from one stall to the next or onto the trucks that took them to slaughter.

But in the Illinois hog confinements that send 12 million pigs to market annually, the understaffed state Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare did not find a single animal welfare infraction or violation during the past five years, the Tribune found. Inspectors dismissed one complaint, state files show, after simply telephoning executives to ask if it was true that their workers were beating pigs with metal bars.

Durbin also reacted forcibly to Tribune reports that documented repeated spills of pig waste from the swine confinement facilities. Polluting rural waterways, the leaks destroyed more than 490,000 fish in 67 miles of rivers over a 10-year span. No other industry came close to causing that amount of damage, the Tribune found.

Durbin said "the reckless polluting" needs to end. Commenting on the newspaper series, he said: "I hope it will lead to swift reforms to protect animals in confinement facilities and the rivers, lakes, and streams Illinoisans depend on for recreation and drinking water. Any reports of animal cruelty and environmental negligence should be thoroughly investigated and those operators held accountable."

Across Illinois, the nation’s fourth-largest seller of pigs, large hog confinements have exploded in number and size. Raising pigs for slaughter in an efficient, factorylike setting, the operations help hold down the price of the most widely consumed meat in the world.

Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, took issue with the Tribune investigation.

"The Tribune story does not paint an accurate picture of how the vast majority of Illinois and U.S. pig farmers currently operate with regard to how they raise and care for their animals or how they protect the environment and produce safe, wholesome food," Tirey said.

"Pig farmers in Illinois and around the country abhor and will not tolerate animal abuse or the degradation of their environment," she said. "If there are instances of animal abuse or violations of the myriad of state and federal environmental laws, they should be taken seriously and fully investigated, with corrective action taken if necessary."

In a post on the association’s website, association President Bob Frase said pork producers had spent hours providing information to Tribune reporters but "we are disappointed that our voice was not heard and that the promised balance was not conveyed to their readers."

Frase added: "Pig farmers are constantly looking for ways to improve the way we raise our pigs and finding better ways to safeguard the environment for our families, neighbors and future generations. This is our top priority."