Monday, April 25, 2011

States to Outlaw Factory Farm Investigations? (Part 3 of 4)

An interview with founder & Executive Director of Mercy For Animals, Nathan Runkle

As I wrote in my first post of this series, three state legislatures (Iowa, Florida and Minnesota*) have introduced bills to criminalize taking photos and videos of animals being mistreated on factory farms—while doing absolutely nothing to stop the widespread animal abuse that these undercover investigators document. Today's installment: my interview with founder and Executive Director of Mercy For Animals (MFA), Nathan Runkle.

Photo courtesy of MFA
Runkle grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, and founded MFA there as a high school student in 1999 in response to a local pig farm cruelty case he got involved in. He has led teams of undercover MFA investigators in exposing animal cruelty at factory farms and other agriculture operations, including the state's four largest egg producers. In the course of his investigative work, Runkle has also rescued and helped rehabilitate dozens of abused and neglected farm animals. In addition, he coordinates MFA's outreach, advocacy and media campaigns, and is a nationally-recognized speaker on farm animal advocacy who has given hundreds of interviews to major newspapers, radio shows and television programs. 

Anyway, here's Runkle's take on the proposed bans of undercover factory farming investigations:

AR: Why do you think agribusiness and some politicians are pushing so hard to pass these bills?

NR: Because undercover investigations have been so effective at exposing the inhumane treatment of animals inside factory farms and slaughterhouses. They have led to civil and criminal animal cruelty convictions against employees and companies, major corporate policy changes, and passage of landmark legislation banning veal and gestation crates, battery cages, and some forms of painful mutilation. They've also elevated the level of awareness and discussion among consumers about the plight of farm animals.

Agribusiness knows that their practices are out of step with most American's values, so they're desperately scrambling to conceal factory farming cruelties from public view with these bills. Obviously, rather than blinding consumers to what they're doing, it would make a lot more sense for the industry to be proactive about improving conditions for animals. Instead, they're resorting to censorship because it's essentially cheaper and easier than improving animal welfare.

One of the most common claims made in defense of these bills is that investigators “selectively edit” them to make it seem like there's more cruelty going on than there actually is. Some people even accuse investigators of “staging” the acts of animal cruelty they capture on video. Personally, I don’t see how that’s possible, especially given that the footage basically depicts other employees abusing animals.

We get many hours of footage from each investigation, which we then have to edit down to hold viewers' attention. People are used to watching short YouTube videos that are a few minutes long, and that's generally the amount of time we have to present the evidence. Plus the footage is so shocking and painful to watch that most people can only take it in small doses.  

Whether it's raw footage or the YouTube version, however, our undercover videos accurately depict what actually happens to animals on factory farms—and law enforcement officials can testify to that. That is, whenever we document what we believe are violations of animal cruelty laws during our investigations, we hand over all of our unedited footage to law enforcement, who then review it for applicable violations. We have a history of successfully criminally and civilly charging companies and individuals for animal cruelty based on our undercover videos. So, if the footage is so strong that law enforcement is willing to take action, and it's used as evidence in a court of law to convict factory farmers of animal cruelty, then of course our videos are true-to-life representations of the abuse being perpetrated in these facilities.

So why then do some people insist that investigators manipulate video footage for their own ends?

I think they're habitual liars who know that the public will not, under any circumstances, find animal abuse acceptable. They therefore have to claim that we've staged acts of animal cruelty. What it boils down to is that we've caught them red-handed—literally, with blood on their hands—and they cannot defend what's going on, so they're trying to shoot the messenger. What they really need to do is look at these investigations, admit that they have real problems, and address the endemic cruelty taking place in their facilities. Instead, the industry is showing how little regard they have for animal welfare and public opinion, and that they are willing to tell outrageous lies to maintain the status quo and their profit margin.

For example, State Representative Annette Sweeney, who introduced the bill in the Iowa House, is a cattle rancher, and she's just been spewing outright lies to the media about how undercover footage is staged by animal activists. MFA has directly contacted Sweeney's office asking for any proof or evidence of a single instance in which undercover farm investigation footage has been staged. They've refused to respond, so I think it's safe to assume she doesn't actually have any facts to support her accusation. 

These bills seem to especially emphasize how tight the relationship is between agribusiness and some politicians. What are your impressions?

Iowa is the largest egg producing state in the nation and one of the largest pork-producing states. Agribusiness therefore has tremendous economic pull, which translates into political power in the legislature. The organizations lobbying in support of this bill, companies like Monsanto, for instance (along with all the major meat, dairy and egg production companies and trade organizations), have a lot of money and financial clout. However, we hope that legislators will have the backbone to stand up to these special interests by rejecting these bills.

We also hope lawmakers realize that, aside from preventing the documentation of animal abuse, these bills would essentially shield farming operations from public scrutiny in terms of environmental regulations, workers' rights violations, tax fraud—a whole host of issues. If employees witness any type of laws being broken, they would be legally prevented from documenting them, which makes it much more difficult for regulators to hold these companies accountable. Take the Hallmark/Westland case in California, for example, which resulted in the largest beef recall in U.S. history and animal cruelty convictions as a direct result of an undercover exposé. If someone was there saying “Sick and injured cows are going into the human food supply” but they weren't able to document their claims, that recall and those convictions would have never happened.

And that's essentially what agribusiness wants: to operate in secrecy without any public scrutiny or regulation. Factory farmers want to create a one-way communication system in which they can promote their sanitized, glamorized, propagandized view of farming without any alternative views contradicting it. The problem is that lack of transparency leads to abuse of power, and makes it impossible for consumers to make informed decisions about what they buy and eat.

Critics also accuse animal protection groups of not really caring about animals because investigators who witness animal cruelty may wait several weeks before reporting it to law enforcement. How would you respond to that charge?

Each case is different, and there are instances in which there are technically no legal violations: that is, the cruelty is just standard industry procedure and therefore exempt from animal welfare laws, so there's no one to report it to. Often the owners and managers are engaged in the abuse, so there's no one in the workplace to report animal welfare violations to. When we document violations, we do bring our evidence to law enforcement as quickly as possible. But the industry's abuse is long-standing: it goes on year after year in these places, and it would continue unchallenged if our investigators didn't expose it.

It's really the obligation of these companies to monitor their operations, but our investigations show they're not doing that. For example, at Willet Dairy we filmed an employee bragging about abusing animals, and management acknowledged that they knew about this ongoing abuse. This employee worked there for 19 years, but it was only after our exposé that they fired him and he was charged with animal cruelty. So who was actually turning a blind eye to criminal behavior: the investigator who'd been there a few weeks, or the company that employed this guy for almost two decades?

When we wrap up these investigations, we have experts and veterinarians analyze the footage to determine whether laws have been broken. We try to present the strongest possible evidence so that we can have the company held criminally accountable for what's going on there. Making a case for prosecution requires a long-term investigation that establishes an ongoing pattern of abuse rather than just a single instance of cruelty.

It seems like most of the animal advocacy groups doing undercover investigations would be strategically categorized as reformists or pragmatists rather than strict abolitionists. Is there a connection?

I think so, because whenever we do an investigation, we look at how we can help the greatest number of animals possible. On the other hand, we also strongly encourage people to completely remove their financial support from the animal agriculture industry by going vegan. But there are enormous opportunities with these exposés to make real-world changes through the introduction of legislation, criminal prosecution, and removing the worst abusers from these facilities. All of these tactics reduce animal suffering to some degree, and we have an obligation to push for these outcomes in every single investigation we do. They also generate discussion and focus attention on the cruelty and exploitation that farm animals are subjected to, which elevates people's awareness of this issue and motivates more consumers to explore veganism as a compassionate alternative.  

Economically speaking, is one motivation behind these bills to attract agribusiness to these states? That is, wouldn't factory farms be enticed to move their operations there because they'd be legally protected from unwanted exposure?

Iowa is already an attractive state for factory farmers because it doesn't have a ballot initiative process, and if they can shield producers from public scrutiny by banning undercover exposés of animal cruelty, obviously that's going to elevate agribusiness' interest in doing business there. Yet all of these factory farmers using cruel methods are out of step with how most Americans want animals to be treated, and I think this disdainful attitude is going to hurt producers financially in the long run.

Another claim is that investigators get these jobs under false pretenses, and that this is somehow illicit and dangerous. What's your response to that?

We have certainly never been prosecuted or pursued for that. Our investigators provide their real names and social security numbers, and apply for jobs at these facilities just the same way anyone else would. There are also existing laws to prevent fraudulently applying for employment. Agribusiness is trying to sell these bills under a larger umbrella of issues that are already covered by other laws for the sole purpose of trying to make them seem legitimate. I mean, they can't just come right out and say they want to prohibit people from taking and distributing undercover videos of farm animals because they're bad for business: they have to invent false claims to make these bills appear reasonable and necessary.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was the first, and remains the only, federal law that protects a particular industry, specifically agribusiness, and provides harsher penalties for people who hold particular beliefs, specifically in animal rights. Are these proposed bans an extension of this type of discriminatory law?

Yes, on the state level, at least. Outlawing investigations could easily be applied to, say, someone who works in a nursing home, daycare center or hospital secretly videotaping incidents of abuse. If these bans on undercover exposés are legitimate, then why do they apply only to animal enterprises? Obviously, we don't want anyone to be restricted from exposing abuse, whether the victims are humans or animals. But the fact that these bans would apply only to animal enterprises makes them discriminatory and unconstitutional.

-          Iowa Residents: Use this convenient HSUS Action Alert to encourage your state senator to oppose S.F. 431. Also contact your state senator directly, and ask him or her to oppose this bill.

Tune in again on Thursday, April 28 Friday, May 13
for my interview with Jeff Kerr,

* The Minnesota and Florida bills have been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

States to Outlaw Factory Farm Investigations? (Part 2 of 4)

An interview with Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing, Erica Meier

As I wrote in my first post of this series, legislatures in three states (Iowa, Florida and Minnesota*) have recently introduced bills to criminalize taking photos and videos of animals being mistreated on factory farms—while doing absolutely nothing to stop the widespread animal abuse that these undercover investigators document. Today's installment: my interview with Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing (COK), Erica Meier.

Photo courtesy of COK
Before Meier took over the helm at COK in 2005, she spent four years working as an Animal Control Officer in Washington, D.C. Her experience enforcing the city's animal welfare laws while rescuing sick, injured, homeless, and sometimes abused companion animals continues to inform her work in the farm animal protection movement today. In addition to overseeing COK's undercover factory farm investigations—which have garnered national media attention and influenced legislative efforts to ban cruel confinement systems—Meier is also intricately involved in the organization's outreach, advocacy and media campaigns.

Here's her personal take on the proposed bills to outlaw undercover factory farm investigations:

AR: Why do you think agribusiness and some politicians are pushing so hard to pass these bills?

EM: They're specifically targeting undercover video investigations because these are perhaps the animal protection movement's most powerful tool for exposing the cruelty inherent in factory farm systems. Farm animal welfare laws are few and far between, but over the last decade, farm animal advocates have focused on passing ballot initiatives and legislation that prevent cruelty by banning some of the worst forms of intensive confinement. The industry is responding by trying to prevent us from getting and broadcasting this footage because it causes public outrage and persuades people to support animal welfare measures. Agribusiness is also trying to establish industry norms as legal regulations in different state codes, as well. They're coming at this from many different angles to ensure that the cruelty to animals taking place on factory farms and in slaughterhouses remains above the law and hidden from public view.  

If undercover investigations are effectively criminalized, at least in some states, how will the public know how farm animals are treated?

I believe that where there's a will, there's a way, but farm animal advocates would have to get even more creative. The truth can only be hidden for so long, and the industry knows that they're vulnerable to exposure, so they're taking every extreme step they can to keep these cruelties hidden behind closed doors. I think, however, that our movement, and many individual investigators, are so committed to exposing these cruelties that we will find a way to document animal abuse even in states where such bills pass. Ultimately, passage of these bans would be a big blow to COK and the movement, but they would not shut us down the way the industry hopes they will.

Is there any precedent for these proposed bans on undercover farm investigations in existing state laws?

There are some states that are riskier for investigators because they already have laws that prohibit certain types of activities done by animal advocates on animal enterprises. So these attempts at shutting down whistle-blowing activities (and other advocacy tactics) aren't exactly new, but the ones being proposed now cast a wider net, specifically targeting the entirely legal activity of taking a photograph or recording of a farm, and may carry more severe penalties.

Proponents of these bills have accused undercover investigators of “selectively editing” videos and even “staging” animal abuse to make it seem like cruelty is happening when it's not. How do you respond to that claim?

Of course we have to edit video footage down before posting it online because we record dozens or hundreds of hours per investigation. Therefore, in publicly-released videos, we highlight the instances in which animals are clearly being abused. 

No matter how we edit the videos, however, what's been documented on camera is what investigators observed, and they clearly aren't staging acts of cruelty but rather witnessing firsthand the abuse of animals by other employees. In virtually every courtroom where factory farming footage has been presented as trial evidence, the farmers argue that the footage has been staged—but no one has ever submitted any proof or evidence of any kind to substantiate this claim. So I'd seriously like these critics to explain exactly how we could possibly stage the cruelty we've captured on camera being committed by other employees. 

Diverting attention away from video evidence clearly showing animal abuse is factory farmers' first-ditch effort to claim they've been victimized by ideologically-motivated investigators who faked footage to frame them. They know they are guilty, and when they are caught, they try every trick in the book to deflect attention away from the concrete proof of their crimes caught on camera. One way they do this is by accusing us of lying and abusing animals.

A related charge is, if undercover investigators really cared about animals, they wouldn't spend several weeks documenting animal abuse before reporting it to law enforcement. What's your response to these accusations?

That's another one of agribusiness' classic deflection tactics. Even if the video shows managers or supervisors perpetrating the cruelty while training the investigator as a new employee, their argument is always, why didn't the investigator stop the cruelty if he or she thought it was so wrong? According to them, it's the responsibility of the trainee—rather than the facility's manager, supervisor or owner—to stop animal abuse. Ironically, it's the corporation's policies that allow the cruelty to happen in the first place, and yet they try to pin the blame on people who've dedicated their lives to stopping animal abuse.  

Also, when our investigators capture video footage of animal cruelty at a factory farm, we usually bring it to a prosecutor immediately with a legal argument as to why he or she should take the case. However, a lot of what we document is commonly exempt from state animal cruelty laws simply because a lot of farms are doing it. The logic is that if something is done routinely on multiple farms, then it must be standard industry practice, and therefore legal. Even though this exemption clause is rarely defined and many of these practices are actually very cruel, they are effectively immune from the law. The point is that, in many cases, telling law enforcement about the cruelty we witness won't lead to prosecution, but we can increase our chances of success by compiling as much proof as possible over an extended period of time.

Critics also charge that investigators only target the industry's few “bad apples” that allegedly don't represent the majority of agriculture producers, just so animal protection groups can damage the entire industry's reputation. What's your response to that claim?

It's another attempt by the industry to defend itself when investigators actually document clear violations of anti-cruelty laws. They're basically admitting that what's shown on video is cruel, but claiming that it's just the exception rather than the rule. But what we've found by doing factory farm investigations is that cruelty is standard practice throughout the industry. In every single facility our investigators have gone into, they’ve documented both run-of-the-mill suffering and criminal acts of cruelty. Almost all of our targets have been chosen at random, too. So when agribusiness claims that there are just a few bad apples and that the vast majority of farmers take good care of animals, they're either lying or in denial.  

Critics also charge that undercover investigators threaten food safety: that they could intentionally or accidentally transmit communicable diseases to whole herds or flocks of animals, making people who eat them sick. What's your response to that?

Investigators who gain employment at these facilities follow the exact same biohazard procedures that every other employee follows, so if they’re claiming that investigators are potentially bringing in diseases, every other employee poses the same exact risk. In many cases, we've found that facilities don't even follow the basic biosecurity measures they claim to, so these companies are actually the ones endangering public health, not investigators.

Also, factory farms have given rise to bird flu, swine flu and mad cow disease, which pose far greater public health risks than investigators ever possibly could. This argument therefore seems like just another attempt by the industry to divert attention away from their own faults by accusing animal activists of what they themselves are guilty of.

Do you think the agribusiness representatives and politicians making these unfounded claims sincerely believe them, or are they just cynically spreading disinformation to prevent animal advocates from exposing the cruelty taking place on factory farms?

It's probably different for different people. Some people grow up around cruelty to animals, so it becomes acceptable and normal to them. It can also be a defense mechanism that kicks in when someone is accused of wrongdoing, and they convince themselves they're not guilty, so there must be something wrong with their accusers. For example, in Nick Cooney's book Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, he writes about how, when you present people with evidence that counters their beliefs, many will cling even more tightly to those beliefs and try to come up with any and every reason they can to dismiss facts that contradict their beliefs. So instead of using logic and reason to question their assumptions, they push back the other way and cling even more tightly to their beliefs.

When animal protection groups expose farm animal abuse, do they not only make agribusiness look bad, but also the government for not doing its job of enforcing animal welfare laws?

That may be another reason that some states are trying to pass these bills. The problem is that there's rampant animal abuse going on throughout the industry, with producers and the government turning their backs on it. The solution, from their perspective, is to stop people from documenting the cruelty so they don't have to spend time, money and effort on improving conditions for animals. It's similar to other factory farming “solutions” such as overcrowding pigs in pens where they get so bored, frustrated and aggressive that they bite each others' tails off. But instead of giving pigs more room so they won't get so stressed, farmers just amputate their tails, usually without painkillers. Basically, they try to solve problems by creating more problems.

If the government was really concerned about cruelty to farm animals, wouldn't they just do what COK does: send undercover investigators in with hidden cameras to document conditions in factory farms?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for enforcing what meager federal farm animal welfare laws are in place, but this is the same government body whose main function is promoting agribusiness' economic interests, so they have an incentive to avoid shutting facilities down for violations. There's a huge conflict of interest there, and both industry and government look at it from a cost-benefit perspective. That is, taking measures to improve the treatment of farm animals would cost agribusiness money, and require the government to invest more resources in enforcement. That's basically why agribusiness and some politicians are trying to pass these misguided bills.


- Iowa Residents: Use this convenient HSUS Action Alert to encourage your state senator to oppose S.F. 431. Also contact your state senator directly, and ask him or her to oppose this bill.

Tune in again on Monday, April 25 for my interview with Nathan Runkle,
founder and Executive Director of Mercy for Animals (MFA)

* The Minnesota and Florida bills have been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

States to Outlaw Factory Farm Investigations? (Part 1 of 4)

An interview with HSUS's End Factory Farming campaign Senior Director, Paul Shapiro

Photo courtesy of HSUS
If you've seen disturbing videos and photos of animals being beaten, tortured and otherwise abused in factory farms, slaughterhouses and other food production facilities, chances are those horrific images were brought to you by undercover investigators working for animal protection groups. If not for these courageous muckrakers, the public would probably never know about the hidden cruelty that billions of animals are subjected to every year behind agribusiness' fortified walls of secrecy and denial. That's why politicians in some states are now trying to protect their campaign contributors in the meat, dairy and egg industries from damningly negative publicity by outlawing this powerful form of animal advocacy.

Legislators in three states—Iowa, Florida and Minnesota—have recently proposed bills that would criminalize taking videos or photos of farm animals without their so-called owners' consent, and gaining employment at agribusiness facilities with intent to document conditions there. That is, rather than address the systemic animal cruelty that undercover investigations have exposed time and time again, some lawmakers want to put those who reveal these abusive practices to the American people behind bars. The proposed penalties for these “crimes” by state are as follows:

- Iowa: A felony punishable by fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years imprisonment
- Florida*: A felony punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison
- Minnesota*: First offense would be considered a gross misdemeanor, with felony prosecutions for any subsequent offenses

The first of these bills was introduced several weeks ago, so I'm admittedly somewhat late on the draw in writing about them. Since author Mark Hawthorne already persuasively articulated the animal rights perspective on this issue in his Striking at the Roots blog last month, I decided to approach it from a different angle than I've seen taken so far. Basically, I asked official representatives from the “Big Four” animal protection groups most known for doing undercover factory farm investigations to tell their side of the story in their own words. Thus begins a four-part series of interviews with these individuals that I will post as follows:

- Today:  Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of The Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) End Factory Farming campaign
- Friday, April 22: Erica Meier, Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing (COK)
- Monday, April 25: Nathan Runkle, founder and Executive Director of Mercy for Animals (MFA)
- Thursday, April 28 Friday, May 13: Jeff Kerr, General Counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)  

Photo courtesy of HSUS
My first guest is Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of HSUS' End Factory Farming campaign. Shapiro was something of an animal protection prodigy, founding the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization Compassion Over Killing in 1995 while still in high school. He served as the group's Campaigns Director for a decade, during which time he went undercover on factory farms with camera in hand to document animal cruelty. Shapiro transitioned to a leadership role at HSUS in 2005, and has since been a major force behind the successful passage of landmark farm animal welfare legislation in states from Maine to California.

Here's what Shapiro had to say about the proposed bans on undercover factory farm investigations:

AR: Strategically speaking, why does HSUS conduct undercover factory farm investigations?

PS: Undercover investigations are an effective way to blow the whistle on agribusiness' mistreatment of farm animals, and these exposés play an important role in our society by shining a very bright light on the dark world of factory farming. They reveal not only animal welfare violations committed by individual workers and the industry as a whole, but other types of illegal activities, as well.

For example, when we investigated California's Hallmark/Westland Slaughter Plant in 2008, we uncovered criminal activity as far as animal cruelty is concerned, as well as serious food safety violations that resulted in the largest recall of meat in U.S. history—over 143 million pounds of beef. Our investigation also led to closure of the plant, which was a large supplier to the National School Lunch Program. Much of that meat would have otherwise been eaten by children, and, unfortunately, some of it was because it could not be reclaimed quickly enough. At the Bushway Slaughter Plant in Vermont in 2009, we not only uncovered criminal activity that resulted in an animal cruelty conviction for the plant's owner, but disciplinary action was also taken against the on-site U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector for not doing his job.

These examples illustrate that exposés play a vital whistle-blowing role that is very important to society as a whole. Yet they wouldn't have been possible if the draconian laws now being proposed had been in place in the states where we conducted them. The factory farming industry should be improving its animal welfare policies and food safety procedures, but instead it's trying to prevent Americans from learning about what actually happens to farm animals.

A common accusation the bills' supporters make against animal advocacy groups is that they “selectively edit” their investigative footage somehow to make it seem as though animal cruelty is taking place when it's actually not, and that undercover investigators even “stage” acts of cruelty themselves to further their animal rights agenda. How do you respond to such allegations?

First and foremost, no one has ever presented any evidence that any animal protection group has staged acts of animal cruelty at a factory farm or slaughter plant. Of course, if it had happened, the guilty parties would be charged with violating the law, because it's illegal to fabricate footage and then use it to malign the reputation of a company. That's defamation and libel, and companies would have already sued someone over this if it had been done.

The fact that the industry has never pursued such legal action speaks volumes about their claims. Anyway, these bills don't aim to crack down on people who would stage videos. Their purpose is to criminalize all undercover videos because they accurately depict the mistreatment and abuse of animals on factory farms, which is an unpleasant reality that agribusiness desperately wants to keep hidden from Americans.

Agribusiness proponents also routinely accuse animal advocacy groups, especially HSUS, of waiting several weeks before reporting animal abuse uncovered during investigations to authorities. They say that if HSUS really cared about animals, you'd report the abuse right away. 

Unfortunately, the abuse that we document often happens right out in the open where everybody at the facility already knows about it: it's just that nobody does anything to stop it. Many times the managers and owners themselves are perpetrating the abuse. In fact, both our Hallmark and Bushway investigations resulted in criminal convictions of the managers or owners of those plants for personally breaking animal welfare laws. More importantly though, the fact remains that, if we were to uncover one act of abuse during an investigation and release that information to authorities, it would probably be dismissed as merely an isolated case. To prosecute people who violate animal cruelty laws, we often need to demonstrate a clear pattern of abuse. That is exactly what we've been able to show through many of our investigations, but only by gathering evidence over a few weeks.

I also understand that a lot of the cruelty you document isn't even illegal: it's just standard operating procedure throughout the industry. In these cases, there would be no one to report the abuse to, right?

Yes, and while some exposés result in criminal convictions, we deliberately conduct other investigations to document the industry's standard operating procedures. Though these practices may be legal, most people would agree that they are still inhumane and cruel to animals. So sometimes our main goal in conducting an investigation is to expose common industry practices that are abusive rather than blow the whistle on criminal acts.

You mentioned before that HSUS has documented USDA inspectors not doing what they're paid to do. This makes me think that undercover investigations not only make agribusiness look bad, but the government as well. So, do you think that the government is actively working with the industry to pass these bills because they don't want people to know how complicit regulatory agencies are in the animal cruelty being perpetrated on factory farms?

Our investigations have often shown that government inspectors, while they are witnessing animal abuse, do nothing about it. At Hallmark, there were six USDA inspectors there, and the abuse was going on right out in the open: none of the inspectors or managers ever stopped it. At Bushway, one of the USDA inspectors told our investigator, on hidden camera, not to let him know when he found live calves in piles of dead calves because then he'd have to shut the plant down. Also on hidden camera, he told workers who were skinning a live calf, while the animal was fully conscious and kicking, that if another inspector saw them do that he could shut the plant down.

However, the government isn't a monolith: it's made up of different kinds of people with different values. Some USDA inspectors really do want to prevent egregious cruelty and try to stop it. There are people who hold positions of power in state or federal government who would like to see these types of laws passed, and there are others who wouldn't. But it wouldn't be accurate or fair to generalize about everyone who is part of the regulatory system, because some of them do want to help animals.

These proposed bills, however, really seem to highlight the close relationship between agribusiness and some elected officials. Can you comment on that?

Agribusiness is a very influential lobby in most states, and certainly at the federal level. The response to that from the animal protection movement needs to be to become an even more influential political force than the animal agriculture industry, and the way we do that is by getting more politically involved. There are a lot more animal advocates out there than people in animal agribusiness, and we need to be as vocal as possible about animal issues in terms of talking to our legislators if we are to make real, lasting progress for animals. 

Agribusiness' response in the states trying to pass these bills is to basically shoot the messenger. But I'm sure you've read in trade journals in recent years that some industry experts are acknowledging, mainly because of the results of undercover investigations, that agribusiness' treatment of animals is out of step with current societal values. These individuals openly call on the industry to initiate farm animal welfare reforms that reflect consumers' expectations. Does HSUS ally itself with those in the industry who desire change?

Yes, absolutely. We work with anybody who wants to raise the bar on farm animal welfare. Sometimes people within the industry want to do that, whether for business reasons or ethical concerns or both, and we're always happy to join forces with them. One example among many of this type of partnership is when HSUS jointly drafted legislation with the California Cattleman's Association to ban the tail-docking of dairy cows throughout the state last year. Tail-docking without anesthesia is not only intensely painful for cows, but it leaves them more vulnerable to fly bites because they can no longer swat insects away. The cattlemen wanted to get rid of the practice, so we worked with them to draft language for a bill that the legislature passed, and then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed it into law.

If the bans were to pass, how would it affect HSUS's ability to conduct undercover investigations in those states?

It really depends on what gets enacted, if anything. These bills are still in process and have many variations, so it would depend on how they were worded as actual statutes on the books.

If undercover investigations do become illegal in some places, how will the animal protection movement let the public know what's actually happening inside factory farms in those states?

There will be a black hole: it will be very difficult for anyone to know what's really happening.

- Iowa Residents: Use this convenient HSUS Action Alert to encourage your state senator to oppose S.F. 431. Also contact your state senator directly, and ask him or her to oppose this bill.

* The Florida and Minnesota bills have both been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

My "Food Recalls" Article in VegNews Magazine

From beef and eggs to peanuts and greens, there's been a measurable increase in food recalls recently. Some of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history have occurred in the last several years, and more food products were recalled in 2010 than in any previous year. So, does this rise in recalls mean our food is becoming more hazardous to our health, or that the U.S.'s food safety system is getting better at identifying and neutralizing threats?

I attempt to answer this and other burning questions about food-borne diseases in my new six-page feature "Fear Factor" in the May/June issue of VegNews magazine. About 1 in 6 (or 48 million) Americans will get ill and 3,000 will die from eating tainted food this year. Don't become just another statistic — protect yourself by getting the facts about food recalls in my latest article!