Animal activists launch publicity
attack against Norbest
CEO apologizes, says actions of one grower do not represent company
By Robert Stevens
Nov. 30, 2017
MORONI—Thanksgiving is usually the high point in the year for Norbest Inc. and its turkey growers. The pre-holiday production rush is over and revenue from the sales is rolling in.
But just before Thanksgiving this year, the company was receiving a bounty of negative press, thanks to members of an animal rights group who sneaked onto a Moroni farm and recorded video evidence of supposed inhumane conditions.
The California-based group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) even disrupted an event outside the Utah State Capitol where Gov. Gary Herbert was getting ready to “pardon” a couple of Norbest turkeys.
As Matt Cook, CEO of Norbest, addressed politicians and school children about his experiences in the turkey industry, a DxE representative held up one of the pictures taken at the Moroni farm.
“We want to talk to you right now,” the man yelled. “We published an expose showing the truth. Norbest wants to tell you a lie. We have children here. As a public good, they need to know the truth.” The governor’s security detail removed the man from the podium.
When Herbert talked, he ignored the protest. Noting that agriculture accounts for about 15 percent of the Utah economy and employs 80,000, he told the students, “I’m thankful you’re here. (It’s) an opportunity for you to learn something today about Utah history and civics… that I’m sure your teachers and parents are going to want to talk to you about when you get back to your classroom.”
The story of the investigation by DxE and the disrupted state capitol event caught on fast. Articles went out from the Associated Press and were picked up by CBS, National Public Radio, New York Post, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to name a few. In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune and Fox News ran stories.
“Consumers expect grassy pastures and happy birds, but what they’re getting for Thanksgiving is torture, disease and violence,” said Wayne Hsiung, (DxE) lead investigator and attorney, in a report released Monday Nov. 20 with video and photos of a local turkey operation. “The turkey industry’s practices are inherently cruel.”
Although DxE made its view of turkey growing practices crystal clear, opinions about the practices depicted in the group’s photos and video vary dramatically depending on who you talk to.
Shortly after the video’s release, Cook posted a public apology letter on the Norbest website condemning the turkey grower for what he described as “disturbing” practices. Cook didn’t name the grower other than to say he was a second-generation grower and to say he was “deeply disappointed with him.”
DxE activists also chose not to name the grower, saying the fault lay on the shoulders of factory farming practices and Norbest itself.
In his letter, Cook claimed Norbest’s animal care investigators had been aware of the poor conditions on the farm. He said the company had notified the grower to return to compliance on Nov. 1, or face losing his contract as a grower for Norbest.
Cook said Norbest ended up confiscating all turkeys on the grower’s farm before the DxE video was even released.
“We provide training and support to the farmers who join the Norbest family because top-notch animal care is important to us. That’s also why we regularly inspect every farm,” Cook said.
A Moroni resident with a connection to Norbest, who “felt it necessary to remain anonymous where criticism of Norbest is concerned,” expressed disappointment at Cook for pointing the finger at the DxE-investigated farm.
“I wish Norbest tackled the larger issue, but I understand how it’s much easier and quicker to use this grower as a scapegoat,” the source said. “The sad thing is that Norbest would let the farmer take the blame (and actually accuse him) for the natural consequences of mass livestock production, rather than coming to his defense.”
Activists at DxE clearly were not convinced by Cook’s letter.
In an interview with the Messenger, Paul Darwin Picklesimer, one of the DxE investigators who risked arrest by sneaking onto the farm to document the conditions, said, “It’s a pretty big leap of faith to believe that out of all the dozens of Norbest-contracted turkey farms in Sanpete County, DxE stumbled on the only one with inhumane conditions.”
“I say, ‘Allow us (DxE) to make unscheduled visits to the other Norbest growers, and then we could know for sure,’” Picklesimer said.
The activists claim that in several visits to the Moroni farm, they gathered evidence of overcrowding, deformities and wounds, use of antibiotics, and other conditions and practices supposedly prohibited by Norbest.
One of the DxE claims, supported by photos of a “Norbest Service Report,” was that some of the flock on the farm it investigated had hepatitis and other medical condition, and were being given antibiotics, a practice which Norbest supposedly prohibits.
According to Picklesimer, DxE chose to highlight what they felt were inhumane practices at Norbest instead of other nationally known poultry producers for two reasons.
First, Norbest, in its marketing materials, touts its free-range growing and ban on antibiotic use.
Second, Picklesimer said, DxE is particularly interested in exposing factory farming in states where “ag-gag” laws make it illegal to enter farms for the purpose of documenting practices.
Utah had an ag-gag law when DxE started its investigation. During the investigation, the law was struck down in federal court on first amendment grounds, and the Utah Attorney General’s Office announced it would not appeal the decision.
DxE even removed several birds from the farm where it conducted its surreptitious investigation. One became a central figure in the DxE video. The group said it nursed the sick turkey, which it named Abby, back to health.
“I think that DxE would agree that anyone who has been to a commercial farm, poultry or otherwise, if they are not accustomed to it, will be troubled by what they see, but (these practices) are necessary unless our society is willing to move to a strict vegan diet (as advocated by DxE),” said Brad Aldridge of Moroni, a member of the Norbest Community Involvement Board. “I don’t believe society as a whole is ready to do that.”
Aldridge said, as he understands it, by sneaking into the sheds, the activists could have introduced disease into the flocks they investigated, potentially causing death or disfigurement of many turkeys.
Farms post signs saying it is harmful to the turkeys to enter sheds if you don’t follow proper decontamination protocols, particularly if you’ve been around other animals, Aldridge said.
“If you frighten the birds—say by shining a bright video light at them—they begin flapping and piling up, causing broken limbs and suffocation,” he added. “That’s a big risk for a group claiming to have the birds’ interest at heart.”
Picklesimer said DxE takes decontamination seriously. He said activists conducting investigations shower and wear new, plastic clothing before going near the animals. And he said the group’s video recording never resulted in a violent pileup of turkeys.
Some people knowledgeable about the turkey industry are defending Norbest and its growers.
“Over the past several years, I have provided training and health support to the production staff and growers at Norbest,” said Dr. Jim Trites a poultry verterinarian and consultant to Norbest.
“I am very aware of the live production practices at Norbest. I have reviewed and recommended changes that were implemented in the Norbest animal welfare program. I have spent time on shadow audits of several of their farms and have engaged in production and animal-welfare dialog with many of the Norbest growers and with the Norbest certified auditor.
“The live production staff at Norbest is very professional and has spent numerous hours developing a thorough and sound animal welfare program.”
A few days after the negative press about Norbest turkey growing started the mushroom, the Messenger received a letter from Dick Olson of Ephraim, who has grown turkeys since 1942 and only recently turned his operation over to his son. (See “Another Look” on the Opinion page.)
“Why aren’t they in jail?” he asked, referring to DxE investigators who, he suggested, trespassed onto the target grower’s farm in violation of signage.
Olson and Aldridge both say they think that while the grower’s birds have been confiscated, they expect the grower to be back in business once he makes improvements to his operation.
Indeed, since the break-in, Olson said Norbest has advised growers in Sanpete to improve their operations and to make sure locks are installed on their buildings.
DxE, which issued similar video footage in July of the Smithfield Foods contracted hog operation Circle Four Farm in Milford, Millard County, seeks “total animal liberation.”
In its investigation of Circle Four, DxE also “rescued” two animals, a pair of piglets. Later, the FBI raided Ching Farm Rescue in Riverton and Luvin Farms in Erie, Colorado to try to find and recover the piglets.
Videos and more on the DxE Norbest and Smithfield investigations can be found at directactioneverywhere.com.