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.
- Watch HSUS's undercover factory farm investigation videos.
- 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.