When Farm Forward Board Member and best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer first became a father he felt compelled to find out more about meat production. Rebuffed by attempts to visit factory farms during daylight, his concern for his son led him to some middle-of-the-night, not-so-authorized visits to factory farms.
Why Undercover Video is Necessary
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In 2008, a meat packager in California known as the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company (Hallmark) became infamous when it issued the largest meat recall in history.3 The 143-million-pound beef recall, which quadrupled the previous US record, was initiated in response to allegations that "downer cattle" (those unable to walk to slaughter) were being processed for human consumption.4 Downer cattle, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has called "unfit for human food,"5 are banned from slaughter because they pose a heightened risk of E. coli, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), and salmonella.6 Since the recall included beef products going back as far as two years, most of the meat had already been eaten, including well over half of the 37 million pounds7 that Hallmark had distributed to cafeterias across the country.8
The USDA stated that its inspectors had been present "continuously"9 at Hallmark, and the plant also passed no less than 17 separate, independent food safety and humane handling audits in 2007.10 Yet these layers of oversight didn't stop horrible, ongoing animal abuse, and they didn't stop the plant from putting millions of people at risk of food-borne illness. It took an undercover investigation to stop these cruel and reckless practices.
Here's the story: In late 2007, a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) member gained employment at the plant, and over six weeks shot video showing other plant employees using forklifts and electric prods to force downer cattle to slaughter.11 At one point an employee even tried to force water up the nose of a downer cow (also known as "waterboarding").12
Meanwhile, HSUS contacted local prosecutors but was asked to withhold the tapes pending an investigation. After waiting two months, HSUS grew tired of waiting and released the video.13 Two days later the plant voluntarily suspended operations,14 and within three weeks it announced the recall of enough beef to make two quarter-pound hamburgers for every man, woman, and child in the country. Two Hallmark employees were fired and faced felony and misdemeanor animal abuse charges,15 and the US Department of Justice eventually filed complaints against the plant for accepting millions in federal contracts while lying about a partner's felony convictions and illegally slaughtering downer cows over several years.16 Despite all the federal oversight and independent audits, only the release of an undercover video prompted action.
The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS, a division of the USDA) conducted an investigation after the recall and found that "there is an inherent vulnerability that humane handling violations can occur and not be detected by FSIS inspectors because FSIS does not provide continuous surveillance."17 FSIS found "deliberate actions by Hallmark personnel to bypass required inspections, as well as noncompliance with required inspection procedures by FSIS in-plant staff." The FSIS investigators quite sensibly recommended determining "whether FSIS-controlled in-plant video monitoring would be beneficial in preventing and detecting animal abuses."18 Incredibly, USDA leadership dismissed the recommendation even though it came directly from FSIS, one of its own divisions! Defying common sense, the USDA instead promised to issue non-binding guidance on how slaughterhouses could voluntarily use cameras for internal auditing purposes.19 This is the strange story of how a federal investigation initiated because of humane handling violations revealed by undercover video surveillance concluded that video surveillance "would not provide the definitive data needed to support enforcement of humane handling requirements."20 (It's difficult to imagine a clearer example of why the USDA should be overhauled into something like the US "Department of Food," an idea that food advocates like Nicholas Kristof21 and Michael Pollan22 have suggested for years. Such a department could put meeting the public need for safe and humane food above the private interests of agribusiness.) Government controls failed then and continue to fail today. However, the abuse seen at Hallmark could still have been averted if a second tier of oversight hadn't failed as well.
Remember those 17 independent audits that Hallmark passed in 2007? Two occurred in the same weeks the video was shot.23 One of these gave Hallmark perfect scores for not "dragging a conscious, non-ambulatory animal" and not "hitting or beating an animal"—two activities that are clearly documented by the HSUS video, and which the audit report itself states are "grounds for automatic audit failure."24 On the very day that Hallmark suspended operations, one auditor wrote that "I have reviewed the records and programs you have at your plant [which] are the best I have ever seen in any plant. . . . Your plant has passed numerous audits on humane handling of animals in this plant in the year of 2007 and has no failures, which you should to be [sic] very proud of." As proof of his conclusions, the auditor cited his "substantial experience" of over 25 years with FSIS.25
Killing the Messenger
When an industry is so corrupt, sloppy, and cruel that it can't stand up under serious scrutiny, its last resort is to attack the ones doing the scrutinizing. The Iowa Poultry Association, which helped write the Iowa ag-gag bill in 2011,26 has defended ag-gag by arguing that animal welfare advocates might sneak onto farms in order to make fake videos, though its chief executive couldn't name a single example of something like that ever happening.27 The Iowa Cattlemen's Association actually made the nonsensical claim that the bill could be used to punish individuals who wait to report animal abuse because they "hold on to that information for publicity purposes" (the bill didn't criminalize waiting to report animal abuse—just unauthorized recording).28 This fear-mongering obscures the simple fact that investigators are consumers, parents, and concerned citizens—they are the 99 percent of us who want to know how animals are treated and if our food is safe. Responsible investigators strive to observe and document—"to be the eyes and ears of the public."29
How You Can Fight Ag-Gag
Send a message to the factory farm lobby and the politicians they control by going to ag-gag.org and signing the Ag-Gag Petition. Amplify your message by sharing it on Facebook and Twitter, and talking about it with friends and family. And, even if the amount is small, make a donation to Farm Forward so we can continue to provide new resources like ag-gag.org.
Since 2011, more than a quarter of all states have considered, passed, or maintained ag-gag laws—and more than twice as many have formally considered bills in 2012 than in 2011!30 This year marked the first new ag-gag law in over two decades, and plans are already being drawn up for new bills in 2013. The factory farm industry's campaign to silence criticism is extensive, well-financed, and frighteningly determined. It's also fatally flawed.
By waging war against undercover investigations, Agribusiness is attacking not only your right to a safe and humane food supply but your right to free speech as well. Agribusiness is betting that you won't stand up for these rights—and that's a very bad bet.
Please join the Farm Forward mailing list to receive updates and important information about how you can get involved. If you'd like Farm Forward to continue our work changing the way America eats and farms, please consider making a contribution today. Every donation makes a difference.
- 1. New York, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Utah, Tennessee, Missouri, Nebraska, and Minnesota all introduced ag-gag bills in 2012.
- 2. Check out one of our favorite websites, Animal Visuals, for an interactive, visual tour of investigations across the country.
- 3. Andrew Martin, "Largest Recall of Ground Beef is Ordered," The New York Times, February 18 2008, available here.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. James R. Healey and Julie Schmit, "USDA orders largest beef recall: 143.3 million pounds," USA Today, February 18, 2008, available here.
- 7. Andrew Martin, "Largest Recall of Ground Beef is Ordered," The New York Times, February 18 2008, available here.
- 8. It was later revealed that Hallmark had actually supplied closer to 50 million pounds to the school lunch program. Matthew L. Wald, "Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows," The New York Times, March 13, 2008, available here.
- 9. James R. Healey and Julie Schmit, "USDA orders largest beef recall: 143.3 million pounds," USA Today, February 18, 2008, available here.
- 10. Michael Moss and Andrew Martin, "Food Problems Elude Private Investigators," The New York Times, March 9, 2009, available here.
- 11. Gillian Flaccus, "Suit: Meatpacker used 'downer' cows for 4 years," Associated Press, September 24, 2009, available here.
- 12. Matthew L. Wald, "Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows," The New York Times, March 13, 2008, available here.
- 13. Andrew Martin, "Humane Society Criticized in Meat Quality Scandal," The New York Times, February 27, 2008, available here.
- 14. "Evaluation of FSIS Management Controls Over Pre-Slaughter Activities (Audit Report 24601-7-KC)," November 2008, available here. i.
- 15. Andrew Martin, "Largest Recall of Ground Beef is Ordered," The New York Times, February 18 2008, available here.
- 16. Gillian Flaccus, "Suit: Meatpacker used 'downer' cows for 4 years," Associated Press, September 24, 2009, available here.
- 17. "Evaluation of FSIS Management Controls Over Pre-Slaughter Activities (Audit Report 24601-7-KC)," November 2008, available here. iii (emphasis added).
- 18. Ibid.: iii and 16.
- 19. Ibid.: 16.
- 20. Ibid.
- 21. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Obama's 'Secretary of Food'?," The New York Times, December 10, 2008, available here.
- 22. "Michael Pollan On Vilsack, Agriculture—And Food," National Public Radio's Morning Edition, December 18, 2008, available here.
- 23. "The Trouble with Food Safety Audits," The New York Times, available here. While exact dates were never independently verified, Hallmark's president reported that the HSUS employee worked at Hallmark from October 3 to November 14, 2007. Of the 17 independent audits conducted in 2007, one was conducted on November 13 and 14, and another was conducted a week later on November 21. It is possible that other audits were performed during the same period.
- 24. Ibid.: 58.
- 25. Ibid.: 61.
- 26. A. G. Sulzberger, "States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse," The New York Times, April 13, 2011, available here.
- 27. Ibid.
- 28. Andrew Duffelmeyer, "Ag industry, lawmakers try to limit secret videos," The Associated Press, March 14, 2011, available here (quoting Association lobbyist Tom Shipley).
- 29. A. G. Sulzberger, "States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse," The New York Times, April 13, 2011, available here.
- 30. 10 states formally considered ag-gag in 2012 (NY, FL, IA, IN, UT, TN, MO, NE, MN, IL); in 2011, only four states did so, while legislators from four others considered doing so but never introduced a bill. Three states (ND, MT, and KS) have ag-gag laws that were passed in 1990 or 1991. Taking into account the overlap between states with 2012 ag-gag bills and states that either introduced ag-gag bills in 2011 or reported considering doing so, at least 13 different states have considered ag-gag since 2011 or else already have ag-gag laws.