A representative of the food-animal industry argued Friday that hidden-camera videos of animal abuse are the work of animal-rights activists with ulterior motives. She said acts of abuse shown on such videos are likely to be isolated incidents, taken out of context.
In response, a lawyer who works in animal rights countered that even if shocking examples of abuse are relatively rare, inhumane treatment of animals — particularly by close confinement — are all too common.
"These groups that are taking these videos are very extreme animal-rights organizations, and their main goal is to bring about the end of meat, milk and egg consumption in this country," said Emily Meredith, communications director for Animal Agriculture Alliance. "And they do that by producing these videos, trying to shock and awe the public. I think the biggest misconception is that these abuses are pervasive, that they are representative of the entire industry, and they're truly not."
JUST A FEW BAD ACTORS?
Meredith said most farmers who raise animals for food are "working hard to do so every day and are doing it the right way and truly care about what they do. And those people are disgusted by any sort of animal abuse." While the industry does have "bad actors" who abuse animals, she said, "to argue that it's pervasive in our food system today is uncalled-for and unfair."
Attorney David Wolfson replied, "It's more than just a few bad actors."
"While we all can agree that the egregious cases, where you find someone who's beating some animal to death against a concrete floor — we all agree that's totally inappropriate," he said, "a large number of animals today in the United States are raised in very intensive confinement systems. So you have pigs that are raised to produce pork in gestation crates, or chickens that are raised for eggs in battery cages. These systems do not allow these animals to turn around, to spread their wings, to basically express any type of natural movement.
"And for a large amount of the American public, those systems themselves, which are pervasive throughout the entire industry, are considered very inappropriate."
"CHECKS AND BALANCES"
Meredith said, and several callers concurred, that farmers have their own reasons to practice humane methods, without the threat of hidden cameras and secret investigators visiting their farms.
"There's a really important check and balance in the system," she said, "which is that every farmer has a buyer, has a customer that they need to provide animals to. So their customers are ensuring that those animals are treated properly, because they don't want a scandal. They don't want to have to deal with public outrage or disgust, and of course it is disturbing and disgusting to abuse any animal. No customer, no grocery store, no restaurant, none of those people want to be receiving animals from a farmer who is abusing them. Those checks and balances exist in the system today."
Wolfson said that much of what routinely goes on in the food industry would be disturbing to people.
"There are other unpleasant practices in the industry, such as the killing of male chicks," he said. "Let's talk about gestation crates, let's talk about battery cages, let's talk about the field crates, let's talk about the mutilation of animals without anesthesia, and we'll talk about everything, because that's the whole point of this. People should know what's going on."
Eight states have passed laws to prevent undercover videos and other secret surveillance of food-animal practices. Meredith said those laws have been proposed " to protect farmers and ranchers from having people that are going onto their farms, that are misrepresenting who they are, why they're there, what they're there to do. And who are there for ulterior motives ... they're there to get footage to turn back over to these groups, and then these groups are putting that footage out with an ulterior motive, with an agenda."
Meredith argued that the public has a right to be informed, but that decisions about animal-care standards should be left to the people who do the work.
"While I agree that consumers with questions deserve to have those questions answered," she said, "I still think the best people to be making decisions about how to raise animals are the farmers and ranchers, the veterinarians, the ethicists, the behaviorists who work with farm animals day in and day out. Not necessarily people who've never been on a farm, never been on a ranch, never worked with animals. The true experts in raising animals for food are farmers and ranchers."
The undercover videos are part of a pattern that has played out in Minnesota and other states: A food producer and supplier is doing a big business, right up until an undercover video reveals animal abuse on its premises. Then business dries up, and the producer promises to change its ways.
In states around the country, legislators have responded by proposing new laws — to ban the undercover videos.
Such laws go by the nickname "Ag Gag." They have become a point of contention between agricultural lobbyists and animal-rights groups. An effort to pass a similar law in Minnesota has been unsuccessful.
LEARN MORE ABOUT TREATMENT OF FARM ANIMALS:
Gagged by Big Ag
The three enormous sow barns in rural Greene County, Iowa, were less than five years old and, until recently, had raised few concerns. They seemed well ventilated and well supplied with water from giant holding tanks. Their tightly tacked steel siding always gleamed white in the sun. But the PETA hidden-camera footage shot by two undercover activists over a period of months in the summer of 2008, following up on a tip from a former employee, showed a harsh reality concealed inside. (Mother Jones)
• Who Protects the Animals?
Videotaping at factory farms wouldn't be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn't. And the public knows this; the one poll about the Iowa ag-gag law shows a mere 21 percent of people supporting it. And poll after poll finds that almost everyone believes that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely. (Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times)