OMAHA, SALT LAKE CITY, KANSAS CITY, OLYMPIA––Publishing a landmark exposé of the little-known U.S. Meat Animal Research Center on January 20, 2015, Michael Moss of The New York Times indirectly racheted up political pressure both for and against “ag-gag” laws.
Meant to inhibit undercover investigators and other inside whistleblowers from exposing cruelty to animals within agribusiness, “ag gag” laws are now on the books in seven states, but cases have been prosecuted only in Utah, and none of the state laws have as yet been reviewed for constitutionality by appellate courts.
The Moss exposé, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit,” was initiated by whistleblower leaks from James Keen, described by Moss as “a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years. Dr. Keen approached The Times a year ago,” Moss wrote, “with his concerns about animal mistreatment. The newspaper interviewed two dozen current and former center employees, and reviewed thousands of pages of internal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.”
The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Moss explained, is “a taxpayer-financed complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles in Clay Center, Nebraska. The center’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories. But it does not closely monitor the center’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.”
Indeed, as an agricultural facility, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is exempt from Animal Welfare Act enforcement, and therefore from inspection by the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service.
High-risk, potentially controversial research
“As a result,” wrote Moss, “the center—built on the site of a World War II-era ammunition depot a two-hour drive southwest of Omaha, and locked behind a security fence—has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do, or are no longer allowed to do.
“The center has about 30,000 animals, tended by about 44 scientists, 73 technicians and other support workers,” Moss detailed, but the center currently has no staff veterinarian. Nonetheless, “The scientists, who do not have medical degrees, and their assistants euthanize and operate on livestock, sometimes doing two or more major surgical operations on the same animal.
“Little known outside the world of big agriculture, the center has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit.”
6,500 animals starved
Founded in 1964, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center has been trying to induce beef cattle to birth twins since 1984, trying to increase pig litter size since 1986, and trying since 2005 to produce “easy care” lambs, Moss learned.
But these experiments in boosting livestock productivity are mostly neither sought nor supported by commercial agribusiness. On the contrary, they come with significant drawbacks long recognized by farmers, including increasing the vulnerability of livestock herds to disease outbreaks that often begin among sickly young and overstressed mothers.
Fooling Mother Nature to produce additional calf, piglet, and lamb births means producing more young than the mother animals are equipped by nature to handle.
“Of the 580,000 animals the center has housed since 1985, when its most ambitious projects got underway, at least 6,500 have starved,” Moss wrote. This has mostly occurred when mother animals were unwilling or unable to nurse some or all of their offspring.
Mother animals have also suffered: “A single, treatable malady—mastitis, a painful infection of the udder—has killed more than 625,” Moss found.
This is not counting deaths of lambs. “Sheep occupy a low rung at the center,” Moss reported. “It keeps no account of their injuries or treatment, as it does for cows and pigs.”
Whistleblowing source Keen’s contributions to the New York Times exposé of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center might have been prosecutable offenses under the requirement typically imposed by “ag gag” laws that witnessing potential violations of humane laws must be reported within a short time frame, usually 24 hours to one week.
A 24-hour reporting requirement in effect in Missouri “may have hindered a report of animal cruelty” at the Murphy-Brown company’s Badger-Wolf pig breeding facility, Harvest Public Media reporter Mike McGraw pointed out in October 2014.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “asked law enforcement in Mercer County to investigate allegations of abuse,” McGraw recounted. “
But PETA says it could not reveal who gave PETA the photos that captured the abuse, as the source of the information ‘is afraid of reprisals.’”
Murphy-Brown LLC is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pig producer. Among the Murphy-Brown/Smithfield facilities is Circle Four Farms, of Milford, Utah, with pig barns in both Beaver and Iron counties. Together they raise about 1.2 million pigs per year.
Four Farm Animal Rights Movement volunteers pursuing video documentation of Circle Four Farms pig trucking routes were in early January charged in the second possible test of the Utah ag-gag law, apparently after accidentally driving on Circle Four property.
Accused were Sarah Jane Gage, 43, of Los Angeles, California; Robert Penney, 64, of Laguna Beach, California; Harold Weiss, 34, of Pasadena, California; and Bryan Monell, 50, of Mount Rainier, Maryland.
But the ag-gag charges were dropped on January 12, 2015, reported Lindsay Whitehurst of Associated Press.
“The activists from California and Maryland will still each face one misdemeanor count of criminal trespass,” Iron County prosecutor Scott Garrett told Whitehurst, but Garrett’s office “decided to drop agricultural interference charges,” Whitehurst wrote, “because officials from Circle Four Farms didn’t want to pursue them.”
Gage, Penney, Weiss, and Monell had all pleaded “Not guilty.”
First Utah case
Amy Meyer, 25, was in February 2013 charged with the first alleged violation of the Utah ag-gag law, 11 days after Meyer used her cell phone while standing on a public sidewalk to document conditions at the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Company in Draper.
A Smith & Sons employee called police, claiming Meyer and another woman were seen on company property, inside the fence. But the police found only Meyer, and found no evidence that she had climbed over or through the fence.
Pending for nine weeks, the charge against Meyer was dropped on April 30, 2013, just 24 hours after it was exposed by Green is the New Red blogger Will Potter and by Jim Dalrymple II of the Salt Lake Tribune.
An attempt to enforce the Colorado “ag gag” law was brought in November 2013 against Compassion Over Killing investigator Taylor Radig. Radig had obtained undercover video in July, August, and September 2013 that brought misdemeanor cruelty charges against three Quanah Cattle Company employees.
Radig was charged, said the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, because “The video [of the alleged acts of cruelty] was eventually provided to law enforcement by representatives of Compassion Over Killing approximately two months after Radig’s employment ended with Quanah Cattle Company…Radig’s failure to report the alleged abuse of the animals in a timely manner adheres to the definition of acting with negligence and substantiates the charge of animal cruelty.”
The Weld County district attorney’s office dropped the charge against Radig on January 10, 2013.
The Utah law, meanwhile “is being challenged by animal-rights activists and a coalition of 17 journalism groups, who say it interferes with the First Amendment Right of freedom of the press,” the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Watchdog bulletin reported on January 14, 2015. “Those groups are led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The groups argue that public knowledge of food production conditions is more than just a free press issue, but a matter of food safety.
“The Reporters Committee is raising the same First Amendment issues in a similar case in Idaho, which also has an ag-gag law,” SEJ Watchdog continued. “At least eight states have such laws: Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota. A similar ag-gag bill was introduced at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session in Washington state.”
Draft ag-gag bills have been circulated for years among conservative legislators by the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council.
But at least some influential voices in agribusiness consider promoting ag-gags to be a self-defeating tactical mistake in the battle for public opinion.
Wrote Chuck Jolley in the November 3, 2014 edition of “the weekly newspaper for agribusiness,” Feedstuffs, “The Humane Society of the U.S. has launched a hotline that offers a reward [of $5,000] for whistleblowers who report cruelty and neglect on large farms, at livestock auctions and in slaughterhouses. The news story” Jolley saw about it, “suggested that ‘the hotline was created after Idaho became the seventh state to put an ag-gag law on the books to criminalize undercover investigations of agricultural facilities.’ Those laws are colossal failures; they will not stop those undercover investigations, and they insinuate to the public that we have something truly evil to hide.
Continued Jolley, “Let’s also add this to the negative equation: Those laws may have driven HSUS to develop a system far more efficient at rooting out the few instances of malfeasance in our collective back yards.
“From today forward,” Jolley warned, “you can stop worrying about a new employee sneaking a hidden camera into your facility to document animal handling crimes that you shouldn’t have allowed to happen in the first place. Worry instead about a disgruntled longtime employee looking at that $5,000 bonus he might get just for picking up the phone.
“Better yet,” Jolley advised, “don’t delay practicing the right kind of management that will keep that call from happening. Run the place as if Temple Grandin was standing right next to you and HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle was sneaking a peek over your fence — because, as of today, Pacelle IS sneaking a peek … and waving a $5,000 check.”
Mercy for Animals
To what extent the $5,000 checks from HSUS may encourage undercover and whistleblower documentation of animal abuse in agribusiness remains unknown.
Keen approached The New York Times about the alleged abuses at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center simply because he was frustrated after years of trying to institute reform through internal procedures.
By far the greatest number of undercover video exposés from within factory farms and slaughterhouses––more than from all other sources combined––have been produced since 2007 by low-paid staff and volunteers from Mercy for Animals.
Mercy for Animals video taken at Sparboe Farms laying hen facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado, aired in November 2011 by the ABC television programs Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and 20/20, reportedly cost Sparboe Farms customers including McDonald’s Restaurants, Target, Wal-Mart, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, and SuprValu Inc.
Mercy for Animals video in 2012 and 2013 brought at least five criminal convictions of farm and slaughterhouse workers––and then in 2014 Mercy for Animals picked up the pace.
In September and October 2014 alone, Mercy for Animals released video exposés of workers allegedly beating cows with chains and wire cables, kicking and punching them, and shocking them with electric prods at the Winchester Dairy near Dexter , New Mexico; kicking and clubbing pigs at a Western Hog Exchange facility near Red Deer, Alberta, Canada; and showing ducklings being debeaked at Reichardt Duck Farm in Sonoma County, California.
Then Mercy for Animals closed the year by releasing a video of alleged abuses of pigs at Seaboard Farms, a major supplier to Walmart.