Farmers try to conceal pig welfare data

03:16, Jul 29 2010
EMBARRASSMENT: Pig farmers are reportedly evading the Official Information Act so they will not face "embarrassment" from the conditions reported at their piggeries.

A leaked email shows pig farmers want to avoid public scrutiny by evading the Official Information Act so they will not face "embarrassment" from the conditions reported at their piggeries.

The results of a nationwide audit, led by the Pork Industry Board, are subject to the act and would ordinarily be accessible by the public.

However, the board has admitted it will deliberately evade the act, prompting the Ombudsmen's Office to say there appeared to be grounds for a complaint and subsequent investigation.

The audit was announced last year, after a public outcry over footage showing the conditions for sows kept in crates at Kuku Beach Piggery near Levin.

The same piggery is under its third Agriculture and Forestry Ministry investigation after animal welfare group Open Rescue said it discovered pigs with bleeding sores, bloody feet and one with an infected ear.

The leaked email, sent to farmers on behalf of the Pork Industry Board, said: "It is likely there will be a number of farms requiring corrective actions and ... those actions could cause embarrassment to the farmer if made public and could cause embarrassment to the industry if used by animal welfarists, [so] some alternatives to current procedures were put forward."

A suggested alternative would mean only the farmer and auditor would hold "completed documentation", with the board notified of pass, fail, or "pending corrective actions (unspecified)".

Board chief executive Sam McIvor said its legal advice suggested the audit report would belong to the farmer, meaning it was personal information.

Before farmers agreed to the voluntary nationwide audit, many had requested that information remain private, Mr McIvor said. The board had to balance the interests of farmers with the interests of the public.

He said the board wanted to be accountable to pork-buying customers, but most customers did not care about farm conditions, just whether they had passed a minimum standard. "There does have to be some trust and the customers need to be able to trust us that we have the processes in place."

There was a "question mark" about whether the board, which was primarily funded by farmers, should even be covered by the OIA.

Save Animals From Exploitation spokesman Hans Kriek said the email revealed the lengths to which the board would go to avoid public scrutiny. "It obviously shows that they're not transparent."

The email was passed on by someone unhappy with the board's response to publicity about sows living in crates, he said. "There's dissent within the pig industry ... because of the bad leadership that has been shown."

Deputy Ombudsman Leo Donnelly said the email could constitute the basis of a complaint to the Ombudsmen's Office  and if a complaint was received, it would be investigated to see whether there had been "maladministration". "If it's their audit and they're accountable for it ... to somehow hide the information ... probably would be something that an Ombudsman would want to look at."

The board might not be able to hide behind the claim that it did not actually hold information, because information held by independent contractors was deemed to be held by the organisation for which they worked.

The Ombudsmen's Office took complaints of deliberate evasion very seriously, he said.

Kuku Beach Piggery owner and former pork board chairman Colin Kay said there were "definitely" no welfare concerns at the piggery and he was a target of the political agenda of "extremist vegetarians".

Out of 1500 pigs at the farm, the latest footage found only three with problems, one of which had since been put down. "This is the reality of farming."

A MAF spokeswoman said Mr Kay's three piggeries had been visited five times since 2006 and, aside from one "minor modification" to infrastructure at one piggery, there were no issues.

A report on the current investigation was due back early next week.

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