The Humane Society of the United States filed a complaint Wednesday against Smithfield Foods, claiming the world's largest pork producer is misleading consumers and shareholders with a video series suggesting it does not abuse pigs.
In the filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the animal-rights organization says videos posted on the Smithfield, Va.-based company's corporate responsibility website, YouTube and other internet sites "are replete with false and/or misleading representations -- both express and implied -- about Smithfield's animal welfare and environmental practices."
Federal securities law prohibits companies from making false or misleading statements.
The complaint says the video series detailing Smithfield's pork-producing process at its Murphy-Brown subsidiary in North Carolina suggests humane treatment of animals is the company's highest priority, and hogs are raised under ideal conditions. In reality, the organization says in its filing, Smithfield continues to confine breeding sows in "gestation crates" that severely restrict the animals' movement.
Smithfield said in a written statement that it is reviewing the complaint.
"We are proud of our unparalleled track record as a sustainable food producer and stand confidently behind our company's public statements concerning animal care and environmental stewardship," the company said.
The animal-rights group also took a swipe at another corporate giant, McDonald's, for buying Smithfield pork despite the continued use of gestation crates.
"McDonald's has publicly recognized that these crates are not good for animals, but it still buys port from pigs bred using this cruel system," Paul Shapiro, the organization's senior director of farm animal protection, said in a news release. "It's time for McDonald's to get gestation crates out of its supply chain."
Smithfield has said it is in the process of converting a number of its sow farms from individual gestation stalls to group housing for pregnant sows, but hasn't said when that transition will be completed. According to the complaint, Smithfield had set a 2017 deadline for completing the transition but withdrew it because of financial considerations.
"McDonald's has been a long-time supporter of alternatives to gestation stalls, and we will continue to support the efforts of Smithfield Foods and all of our suppliers to phase them out," McDonald's said in a statement. It added that the company has its own animal welfare guidelines and insists on compliance by its suppliers.
The Humane Society says the rosy picture painted in the video series contrasts sharply with the results of its own undercover investigation of a Smithfield facility in Virginia. In December, the organization released photos and video showing about 1,000 large female pigs crammed into gestation crates where they stay during their four-month pregnancies.
"Frustrated by this extreme confinement, some sows had bitten their bars so incessantly that blood from their mouths coated the fronts of their crates," the SEC filing says.
The investigation also uncovered other alleged abuses, including a pig being shot with a stun gun and tossed into a brash bin while still alive and prematurely born piglets falling through gestation crate grates and dying in manure pits.
"It was just three months after this investigation was conducted that Smithfield launched its video series praising its animal care practices," the SEC complaint says. "The documented footage from within the Murphy-Brown facility, however, was manifestly not a place that was `ideal' for pigs, that met their every need, or that demonstrated a `conscientious model' for the industry."
The filing also says Smithfield's videos fail to disclose that castrations and other painful medical procedures are performed on pigs without anesthesia, and that the footage shows "pristine housing conditions" for pigs that do not reflect typical conditions.
Smithfield rejected a suggestion by its own animal-handling expert that it install live webcams at its farms, "ensuring that stakeholders would only have access to the produced, atypical images in the released videos," the complaint says.