Maple Leaf Foods is facing allegations of animal mistreatment at one of its chicken hatcheries, in the wake of troubling undercover footage shot by an animal rights group and shared exclusively with CBC News.

The video was shot by an employee of the animal rights group Mercy For Animals Canada who got a job working at Horizon Poultry in Hanover, Ont., and used a hidden camera to document events there over a six-week period.

Horizon is a chicken hatchery owned by Maple Leaf Foods, one of Canada’s leading retailers of chicken.

Canadians consume more than one billion kilograms of chicken every year, and Maple Leaf sells both raw and processed chicken under multiple brands, including Schneiders, Maple Leaf Natural Selections and Maple Leaf Prime.

The video, recorded over several weeks at the hatchery, captures a number of questionable practices.

The footage shows dead chicks coming out of a dishwasher, likely as a result of getting their feet caught in baskets that go into the high-temperature washer. When the undercover worker asks how they die, an employee laughs and says, “They boil! I have no sympathy for them anymore.”

The footage also shows an employee euthanizing sick and injured chicks by dumping several large baskets of chicks into a mechanical macerator and pushing them into the grinder with a squeegee.

Using a macerator to euthanize chicks is an accepted industry practice and considered humane according to industry guidelines. The guidelines were written by a group that includes industry, researchers and government.

However, the codes of practice explicitly state: “Chicks must be delivered to the macerator in a way that prevents a backlog of chicks at the point of entry … without causing injury or avoidable distress.”

Other footage shows workers picking up birds by their wings and tossing them. The undercover worker who shot the footage wrote detailed notes of the hatchery’s operations, and said that it was a fast-paced environment and that he was expected to sort 1,750 chicks every hour.

Hidden camera video of the undercover employee’s performance review shows a supervisor telling him that he is under his production goal.

Meat company suspends employee

Maple Leaf Foods has a public animal welfare policy that states that the company takes a zero-tolerance stance on animal cruelty.

“Everyone involved in the raising and processing of animals and poultry, from producers and transport workers to all of our employees, are required to adhere to good animal handling practices in accordance with industry guidelines, serving as stewards of the animals entrusted to their care,” the policy states.

CBC notified Maple Leaf about the video from Horizon, and showed footage to the company. In response, Ben Brooks, general manager of poultry operations, issued a statement:

“The employee who was overheard making callous remarks on the video does not reflect the values of our workforce or culture, and her comments violate our animal welfare program. The employee has been immediately suspended without pay.”

Brooks responded to the allegations that chicks were killed in the dishwasher, writing that the company is “reviewing procedures and practices at this location to ensure that live chicks are removed safely at all times, as they should be.”

After consulting with an independent expert about footage of a worker dumping several baskets of chicks into the macerator, the company stated that the squeegee was used to space the chicks out, not push them through, and that this is not inconsistent with the company’s welfare guidelines.

The company also told the CBC that, “the amount of chicks entering the line did not have a significant impact on animal welfare.”

However, Brooks says that the company is, “going to review the proper care and handling of chicks with our employees and our requirement that they remove them [to the macerator] one box at a time.”

Brooks also wrote that, "we do not promote speed at the expense of animal welfare, nor do we enforce production quotas."

Treatment ‘completely unacceptable’

Veterinarian Dr. Mary Richardson, an animal welfare expert, was shocked by the video.

“I think the workers are showing such a lack of care and respect for the chicks. It’s almost like they’re widgets in a factory line,” she told CBC Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.

Mary Richardson

Veterinarian Mary Richardson says we owe it to animals to treat them humanely. (CBC)

“We owe it to animals to treat them humanely, and in this case it’s clear that they are not being treated humanely or respectfully at all,” she says.

Richardson was particularly alarmed by the footage showing dead chicks in a dishwasher.

“What seems to be happening is they’re either being drowned or they’re being cooked alive, really, from the heat of the water, and neither of those methods are humane ways to kill an animal. So that’s completely unacceptable,” she says.

Richardson was also disturbed by footage showing the chicks being euthanized.

“The onus is on us when we use animals, and kill them for our own purposes, to do it humanely and there are laws in place to ensure that,” she says. “To me, these chicks are suffering a lot of anxiety and stress and pain, probably at the beginning before they’re even killed, and that’s not acceptable.”

Most agricultural facilities in Canada  including many farms and hatcheries  are not subject to mandatory animal welfare inspection by government, something animal welfare groups say needs to change.

Mercy for Animals Canada has filed a complaint with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which enforces provincial animal cruelty legislation, and the OSPCA is investigating.

“The government only inspects farms in response to complaints and those complaints are few and far between,” says Anna Pippus, a lawyer for Mercy for Animals Canada.

“The industry is self-regulated but they have proven time and time again that they are incapable of self-regulation.”

Pippus says the solution is for proactive government inspection for welfare issues, and more specific standards for farm animals.

She also says that farms could prove a commitment to animal welfare by live-streaming video from their operations, something the American Veterinary Medical Association has also endorsed.

Trouble with turkey breeder

This troubling footage comes only weeks after a Marketplace investigation detailed cruelty concerns at one of Maple Leaf’s turkey suppliers, Hybrid Turkeys.

In that case, the video depicted disturbing conduct at a breeding barn in southwestern Ontario.

That video, also shot by an undercover employee working for Mercy for Animals Canada, showed birds with large open wounds, failed euthanizations and an employee advising the undercover worker to kick birds.

After the CBC report, Maple Leaf promised independent welfare audits at Hybrid’s facilities.

"We saw the video on Marketplace for the first time. We are very disturbed by the abuse shown  it violates our animal welfare policies and requirements of our suppliers, who receive eggs from Hybrid to grow their turkeys,” Maple Leaf spokesperson David Bauer wrote in a statement.

In response to the allegations, Hybrid Turkeys suspended four employees, including a supervisor, and launched an internal investigation. According to media reports, at least one employee has since been fired, and others have been conditionally reinstated.

Hybrid refused to confirm the report, saying that it does not comment on matters of personnel.

The OSPCA and OPP are also investigating that incident.