Hidden camera footage, secretly recorded at an Ontario turkey breeding farm, is raising troubling questions about the lack of government oversight of animal welfare standards.

The footage, shot by a member of the group Mercy for Animals Canada who got a job with the farm, was shared with CBC Marketplace. It appears to show birds with large open wounds, an employee advising the undercover worker to kick birds and failed euthanizations.

One euthanization caught on tape shows an employee hitting a bird repeatedly with several objects, including a shovel, over the course of several minutes after an initial attempt to use an authorized tool failed.

Watch Marketplace

The episode The Trouble with Turkeys airs Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador). Follow the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #turkeys.

“This was the worst abuse I’ve ever seen inflicted on an animal,” the undercover worker who shot the footage told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.

“The birds are not being properly monitored,” said Ian Duncan, an animal welfare expert with the University of Guelph.

The full investigation, The Trouble with Turkeys, airs Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NL) on CBC Television.

Hybrid Turkeys, a breeding company based in Kitchener, Ont., owns and operates the barn where the footage was filmed. Birds from Hybrid’s genetic stock make up 90 percent of the turkey eaten in Canada.

Hybrid is the world’s largest primary turkey breeder; the birds in Hybrid barns are the grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents of the turkeys raised on commercial farms.

Company says problems were ‘isolated incident’

While most of the birds in the barn appear healthy, the video reveals some disturbing images.

Hybrid Turkeys responded to the allegations detailed in the Marketplace investigation by suspending four employees who appear in the footage, including a supervisor, and launching an investigation.

They say that the behaviour captured on video is not indicative of the way they operate and stand by the care and treatment of their birds.

“As soon as we had evidence that this was going on in the barn, we took immediate action and we suspended the employees that were involved, because they were not adhering to our welfare practices, and zero tolerance for us means zero tolerance,” said Helen Wojcinski, a spokesperson for Hybrid Turkeys.

Ian Duncan

“The general public, I think if they see something like this they’re going to be absolutely horrified. Horrified that this is how their food is being produced,” says Ian Duncan, an animal welfare expert and professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. (CBC)

“We feel this is an isolated incident,” she said. “Employees have been trained. They know what they're supposed to do. There is obviously a lapse. There's been a mistake made here.”

Mercy for Animals Canada has also filed a complaint with the Ontario Provincial Police, which has launched a criminal investigation. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) is also investigating.

‘Gaping hole in the system’

Cruelty to animals is an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada, but much of the enforcement of animal welfare standards is handled provincially. In most provinces, enforcement powers are handled by provincial societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

However, Geoff Urton with the B.C. SPCA said that the current complaint-based system doesn’t adequately protect farm animals.

“There’s a gaping hole in the system with regard to monitoring and inspection of these farms across Canada,” said Urton. “There’s not much being done right now and it’s a major concern.”

“SPCAs in Canada who do animal cruelty law enforcement, we have an inspection mandate for farms in Canada so we would respond to complaints as they come in,” he said. “But generally, that would take a whistleblower to come forward, and actual animal cruelty complaints.”

Urton said that the government should be doing more to make sure animal welfare standards across Canada are being met.

“Ultimately, there should be some kind of proactive inspection and monitoring compliance system in Canada. Otherwise, how can anybody know how these animals are being treated?”

Helen Wojcinski

“We feel this is an isolated incident,” says Hybrid Turkeys’ Helen Wojcinski. “Employees have been trained. They know what they're supposed to do. There is obviously a lapse. There's been a mistake made here." (CBC)

The lack of proactive inspections, and the complaints-driven enforcement in place in most provinces, have made undercover evidence-gathering a common tool for animal rights activists.

In the U.S., similar investigations have prompted several anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to photograph or videotape on farms without consent. Idaho just passed similar controversial legislation at the end of February.

Limits of welfare labels

Certification programs that assure consumers of good animal welfare practices are growing in popularity. A 2009 Harris Decima poll commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society found that 72 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they were willing to pay more for meat that was certified humane.

The limits of complaints-based enforcement prompted the B.C. SPCA to create its own certification program for farm animals. The SPCA Certified labels can be found on meat raised under the program.

But for consumers who are looking to labels to help them buy humanely raised meat, there is only so much that existing label programs can guarantee.

The B.C. SPCA program and Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership label hold farms to high animal welfare standards, tracking compliance with third-party audits. However, neither program looks at how the farms that supply commercial farms treat their animals.

“We’re beginning to see … labels on products that assure you that this animal has lived a good life,” said Ian Duncan from the University of Guelph.

“That obviously needs to go further back than the product that you’re buying. And it needs to say that not only has this bird had a good life, but the parents, the grandparents and maybe the great-grandparents [have also been treated well]. You know, there needs to be a line of assurance that goes all the way back,” he said.

“Because the general public, I think if they see something like this, they’re going to be absolutely horrified. Horrified that this is how their food is being produced.”