Cell phone videocams open factory farms to public view
Ignoring 30 years of warnings by leading U.S. agribusiness educators and pundits has at last visibly begun to cost the livestock industry consumer confidence, as evidenced by the explosive growth in sales of plant-based protein foods and steeply declining dairy, meat, and poultry consumption among younger Americans.
Fair Oaks Farms, of Fair Oaks, Indiana, a self-anointed exemplar of humane animal agribusiness, operating a purported “Dairy Disneyland, ” is only the most recent of dozens of agribusiness conglomerates to learn the hard way that trying to gloss over abusive practices in an inherently exploitative industry is foredoomed to failure.
Ignoring Temple Grandin
Had Fair Oaks Farms really taken the advice of agribusiness reformers, including the renowned Colorado State University professor of psychology and animal science Temple Grandin, the continuous video monitoring of animal handling that she has long recommended would have been in place since the Fair Oaks facilities were built.
Then, maybe, exposing egregiously rough handling of calves might not have been left to Animal Recovery Mission, of Miami Beach, Florida, a relatively new and small organization whose previous undercover video exposés have targeted dairy farms and slaughterhouses much closer to home.
Increasingly often obtained and effective undercover videos are acquainting ever more of the public with the realities of meat, egg, and dairy production, including the apparent inability of agribusiness to lastingly improve animal welfare despite years of promises.
Videos bring criminal convictions
More than three dozen people employed in agribusiness, including half a dozen farm managers and some farm owners, have now been criminally convicted as result of undercover video gathered by more than 300 people, who have cumulatively gathered thousands of hours of visual evidence from factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Hundreds of other agribusiness workers have been fired for abuses of animals shown on video that were not criminally prosecuted.
About half of the undercover documentarians are believed to have been staff or volunteers for animal advocacy organizations, who took jobs in animal agribusiness after receiving some training in videography and how to gather evidence that can be legally admitted in court proceedings.
Agribiz workers take video to animal advocates
But the others were already working in animal agribusiness before observing appalling conditions that moved them to action, usually before having any contact at all with anti-animal use industry activists. After gathering cell phone documentation, and often after employers failed to act upon the evidence, these people went looking for animal advocacy organizations to help them.
Of course the videographers who had previously worked in agribusiness were able to document what they had already seen. But of perhaps greater significance, none of the 150-odd investigators who went looking for abuses as outsiders to agribusiness are known to have failed to find conditions and practices that are just as shocking to mainstream consumers of meat, eggs, and dairy products.
No activist ever convicted as accessory to abuses
Animal agribusiness spokespersons have often alleged that at least some of the video exposés are staged, showing abuse or negligence that was arranged or incited by the videographers themselves.
Yet only one undercover videographer has ever been charged, and none convicted, as an accessory to the practices they have exposed.
The case against the one investigator who was charged, which pertained only to alleged failure to promptly report cruelty to farm management, was thrown out of court in 2013.
“Ag gag” laws
Instead of reforming industry practices, the animal use industries, including dog breeders as well as dairy, pig, and poultry producers, have focused since 2011 on passing so-called “ag gag” laws that attempt to criminalize making and distributing undercover videos.
Those laws have now been struck down as violations of First Amendment rights in Idaho, Iowa, Utah, and Wyoming––all four of them politically conservative states where agriculture is the biggest industry.
University of Illinois agriculture professor emeritus Stan Curtis, 68, who spent his career researching ways to make factory pig farming more profitable, died on April 25, 2010, two years and four days after warning readers of the agribusiness trade journal Feedstuffs that “Animal agriculture will have to become more transparent,” and “People distrust secretiveness, but they value openness.”
If agribusiness failed to maintain animal welfare standards capable of withstanding public scrutiny, and failed to show the public good examples, Curtis cautioned, animal advocates would continue to produce a seemingly endless series of exposés of conditions and practices that no one could defend.
Curtis lived long enough to see it, including exposés of alleged animal welfare violations at four Iowa egg farms released by HSUS just three weeks before his death.
“The 9/11 event in the swine industry”
As of Curtis’ death, more than half of all the undercover video exposés of factory farms and slaughterhouses that had ever been broadcast or posted to web sites had been aired in the two years since a 2008 PETA exposé of a MowMar Farms pig breeding facility near Bayard, Iowa.
This was just a fraction of the undercover video that has now been obtained and made public, but MowMar co-owner Lynn Becker nonetheless presciently called the PETA exposé “the 9/11 event in the swine industry.”
“This is a wakeup call for the industry,” agreed American Association of Swine Veterinarians executive director Tom Burkgren.
The video showed staff beating pigs with metal rods and urging others to do likewise, live piglets in a dead pile, and castration and tail-docking being done without anesthesia.
“PETA did animal agriculture a favor”
MowMar Farms, headquartered in Fairmont, Minnesota, had only bought the 6,000-sow site in Iowa 28 days before the PETA video was released. The video images were collected by PETA undercover operatives for three months before MowMar acquired the facility and changed the management.
MowMar subsequently fired six employees who eventually pleaded guilty to cruelty to animals. PETA asked that 12 more employees be fired and the Iowa Farm Bureau endorsed the PETA call for prosecutions.
“PETA did animal agriculture a favor,” opined Faces of Farming founder Trent Loos. “I have to wonder, though,” Loos asked, “why it took the assistance of an organization with a vegan agenda to stop this ongoing display of disrespect toward animals?”
PETA asked MowMar to install cameras in all animal housing, to monitor employee conduct. Perhaps MowMar did, as well as changing names to Fair Creek LLP, since the company has avoided further video exposés.
Catching videographers will not stop exposure
Cell telephones that can transmit live video to web sites mean agribusiness can no longer keep how animals are treated out of public view. The only question is who uses the video images, for what purpose.
Even if factory farm or slaughterhouse security guards quickly capture an activist clandestinely taking and transmitting video, persuasive evidence of animal abuse and neglect might already be reaching an international audience. Use of offshore web hosts can mean the evidence is beyond the reach of corporate lawyers before the videographer is removed from the premises.
No matter how the videographer is punished, images transmitted into the public domain might circulate for decades.
Cameras in the barns
Colorado State University professor of psychology and animal science Temple Grandin began warning agribusiness about the potential of undercover video to transform public perception of livestock rearing and slaughter in May 1991.
Since then Grandin has repeatedly advised lecture audiences of factory farm and slaughterhouse executives to learn to use closed-circuit video cameras to monitor animal welfare, and show the world positive images of routine animal treatment, or continue to be exposed with increasing frequency.
Grandin began recommending that farms and slaughterhouses use video surveillance soon after Minneapolis cocktail waitress Becky Sandstedt released to news media selected clips from 40 hours of video she covertly made of the handling of downed cattle and pigs at United Stockyards Inc. in South St. Paul. United Stockyards agreed, after five weeks of protest and public pressure, to stop accepting deliveries of cattle and pigs who could not walk to slaughter.
Clumsy technology gave agribiz time to clean up
Sandstedt soon afterward took a full-time job with Farm Sanctuary, but the video technology of the time was not easily used to produce further exposés of an industry that had been put on guard. The equipment was expensive, hard to use covertly, and required activists to enter agribusiness facilities with items easily recognized as out of the ordinary.
Seven years passed before SHARK undercover investigators Steve Wong and Dug Hanbicki documented inside procedures at the Concord Meat Processing Company and Long Chen Hmong Livestock Inc., both of South St. Paul, Minnesota. The images they captured, especially of pig slaughter, were so disturbing that no mainstream media would air them (but ANIMALS 24-7 viewed them in entirety.)
The World Wide Web had debuted five years earlier, but most users lacked the connection speed needed to view videos online.
Gail Eisnitz exposed slaughter
Video clips of abusive practices obtained by Gail Eisnitz of the Humane Farming Association from inside workers at an Iowa Beef Packers plant in Wallula, Washington, finally gave the public an up-close view of slaughter in May 2000. The Wallula clips were broadcast by leading Seattle and San Francisco television news stations.
A week later a North Carolina TV station accidentally aired a PETA undercover video that brought the convictions of several Belcross Farms personnel for cruelty to a pig.
PETA followed up with other undercover video investigations. The poultry processing firm Pilgrim’s Pride in July 2004 fired three managers and eight hourly workers at a slaughterhouse in Moorfield, West Virginia, where a PETA undercover videographer documented workers killing chickens by stomping them and beating them against walls.
In December 2004 AgriProcessors Inc. of Postville, Iowa, then the only U.S. slaughterhouse authorized to export meat to Israel, agreed to amend their slaughtering procedures after a seven-week PETA undercover operation produced 30 minutes of damning video that called into question whether AgriProcessors meat could even be considered kosher.
YouTube changed the picture
But all of the elements needed for animal advocates to fully and repeatedly expose factory farming and slaughter were not yet in place until the February 2005 debut of YouTube. Suddenly anyone could post brief video clips and compete for public notice.
The introduction of cell telephones capable of capturing video meanwhile gave anyone the ability to document anything. The mostly young and highly transient farm and slaughterhouse labor force, including many illegal aliens of no fixed address, had already made cell telephones ubiquitous and inconspicuous at agribusiness workplaces. A worker receiving or making a brief cell phone call had become so routine as to barely be noticed by supervisors, if at all.
Undercover video exposés of animal agriculture entered the YouTube era after Compassion Over Killing investigator John Brothers documented conditions at Esbenshade Farms in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania during the first week of December 2005.
Esbenshade Farms chief executive H. Glenn Esbenshade was acquitted of cruelty charges in June 2007, after successfully contending that the video showed only standard agricultural practices. The anti-cruelty laws of Pennsylvania and 30 other states exempt standard agricultural practices from prosecution as cruelty.
But while Esbenshade won in the court of law, he did not appear to win in the court of public opinion. More than 10,000 people saw the Compassion Over Killing video on YouTube. Thousands more saw it on other web sites.
Farm animal advocates have always believed that the public would reject the routine mistreatment of livestock, if they saw it. The Esbenshade case proved the point: the more Esbenshade argued that what the Compassion Over Killing video showed was normal, the less the animal suffering it showed seemed to be pardoned.
Michael rowed the boat into deep dookey
The Humane Society of the U.S. did the first of several hidden video exposés of Michael Foods Egg Products Co. facilities in June 2006, finding similar “normal” conditions, including live hens confined in cages with dead hens in advanced decomposition, hens caught in the cage wire, sick and injured hens, and immobilized hens who were allegedly dying from starvation and dehydration, inches from food and water.
A Compassion Over Killing undercover video investigation found similar conditions at a Michael Foods egg barn at an unspecified location in August 2009. Then HSUS a month later distributed video from a Michael Foods egg barn in LeSeuer, Minnesota.
Michael Foods told Tom Webb of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that “Some or all of the scenes showing dead birds being removed from cages were staged.”
Webb never documented his claim, though. Meanwhile, the 2006 video helped to persuade one of Michael Foods’ biggest customers, the ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, to begin transitioning to the use of free range eggs.
Between investigations of Michael Foods, PETA placed two undercover investigators inside an Ozark Butterball turkey hatchery in Arkansas for 40 days between April and June 2006. Compassion Over Killing placed one investigator in a Goldsboro Milling turkey hatchery in North Carolina, also a Butterball brand supplier, for three weeks in June and July 2006.
Video from both operations aired as Thanksgiving 2006 approached.
The Compassion Over Killing video showed culled hatchlings being stuffed into plastic bags and pulverized in macerating machines.
Not learning from the then ongoing Esbenshade fiasco, Sleepy Creek Farms general manager Nick Weaver, who also oversaw the Goldsboro Milling turkey hatcheries, objected to Leigh Dyer of the Charlotte Observer that this is accepted under industry guidelines.
“To portray it as this horrible, sinister situation is just not fair, just not accurate,” Weaver protested.
Again the defense that the exposed procedures are normal and accepted appeared to amplify the impact of the undercover videos on the public.
Jesus didn’t starve hens
No such defense was possible after a Mercy for Animals undercover investigator in May 2007 produced video of House of Raeford Farms turkey production workers “using live turkeys as punching bags, ripping their heads off, and slaughtering conscious birds,” as a Mercy for Animals media release summarized.
Mercy for Animals unsuccessfully sought felony charges against the alleged abusers.
House of Raeford management insisted that the investigator instigated the abuses, but the Denny’s restaurant chain changed turkey suppliers.
2007 closed with a pre-Christmas announcement by Mepkin Abbey, of Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, that it would begin an 18-month transition out of the egg business. Selling eggs and chicken manure had provided 60% of the income for the Trappist monastery.
PETA in January 2007 had collected undercover video in which a monk compared the practice of starving hens, done to induce a “forced molt” and a new egg-laying cycle, to fasting for religious reasons.
HSUS & Mercy for Animals
The Humane Society of the U.S. produced what may still be the most publicized undercover video exposé to date in January 2008 at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company in Chino, California. More than 120 newspaper and magazine articles and 14,600 web sites amplified the findings of the lone HSUS investigator, who documented extensive abuse of downed cattle at one of the 18 slaughterhouses that supplied meat to the USDA school lunch program.
The USDA withdrew inspection of Hallmark/Westland, forcing it to close for nine months, before reopening under a different name and new management. Two workers were criminally prosecuted. One was sentenced to serve 270 days in jail; the other was deported to Mexico.
Mercy for Animals, however, conducted more successful undercover video investigations of farms and slaughterhouses between 2008 and 2016 than all other animal advocacy organizations combined. At least a dozen of the Mercy for Animals videos were amplified by nationally distributed mass media. The Mercy for Animals videos also brought the most criminal convictions of farm personnel.
Agribiz uses video mostly to prevent theft
Video surveillance systems to that point, and still today, have been marketed to agribusiness chiefly for preventing theft and substance abuse.
Video security cameras are now common at factory farms and slaughterhouses, but tend to be focused more on entrances and corridors than on the animals.
Video surveillance as now practiced by many companies in agribusiness has caught thousands of employees sneaking calls on their cell phones. But it has not stopped some of those calls from transmitting the evidence that factory farming and slaughter are ugly businesses, no less cruel today than when Becky Sandstedt introduced the undercover video era in 1991.
Could agribiz ever really clean up?
Stopping calls that embarrass agribusiness will require eliminating any animal welfare problems that cell phone video can document––and it is not clear that this can even be done with a poorly paid, barely trained, highly transient work force, many of whom are much more likely to be deported than to ever collect Social Security.
Even if any and all visible abuses can be prevented, animal agriculture will remain the same cruel and exploitative industry it always was, beginning with life in confinement and ending with slashed throats. Vegans, most vegetarians, most animal rights activists, and ANIMALS 24-7 will all still oppose it.
But that is no excuse for the animal use industries to continue to balk at eliminating cruelty in every way that they can, while squawking––without offering a shred of evidence that has stood up in court anywhere––that amply and relatively easily obtained documentation of abuse are “staged” and “fake news.”
The authentically “fake news,” as the Fair Oaks Farms debacle illustrates, is that anyone anywhere has really cleaned up much of anything in animal agribusiness despite nearly 30 years of warnings and opportunities to do so.