The (Orwellian) Language Of Pig Farming

Last week Mercy For Animals released typically horrifying video from an undercover investigation of pig farming. The video is below, but steel yourself, because this is what it shows:

MFA’s hidden-camera video exposes the following horrific abuses:

  • Thousands of mother pigs confined to filthy, metal gestation crates so small they are unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for nearly their entire lives
  • Workers beating, throwing, slapping, hitting and screaming obscenities at pigs
  • Workers slamming piglets into the ground and leaving them to suffer and slowly die
  • Workers ripping out the testicles and slicing off the tails of fully conscious piglets without the use of any painkillers

It’s hard to believe that anyone who still eats pork isn’t aware on some level that this is what is behind the cheap bacon that they love to celebrate. But maybe there are bacon-lovers who somehow just have no clue. And if there are, then perhaps part of the explanation for how this can be is the startling and twisted use of language that Big Meat uses to try and sanitize its operations for the public.

It’s positively Orwellian, and the New York Time Lede blog comes up with a classic example, courtesy of Luke Minion, CEO of the agribusiness which owns the farm depicted:

Luke Minion, the chief executive of Pipestone Systems, which owns the Rosewood Farm and others, said in an interview that he fired one employee and reassigned another as a result of the activists’ investigation. “There are things depicted on the video that are not defensible nor are they our policies,” Mr. Minion said. “We want to be better than what’s on that video.”

Mr. Minion, a trained veterinarian, also said that castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is normal procedure and defended the gestation crates, which he called “individual maternity pens.” The crates, he said, “are an appropriate option.” He added, “We who raise the livestock ought to be able to keep that choice.”

“Individual maternity pens?” But that sounds kinda nice. And note Mr. Minion’s sly positioning of the issue of gestation crates as a question of “options” and “choice” for the farms. Options and choices are about freedom, right? And we all love freedom, right?

This is the familiar language of PR and spin, which has long been used by Big Tobacco and Big Oil, among other industries, to anesthetize the sometimes willing and often gullible public to the reality of their businesses.

It also known as the Big Lie. But even the Big Lie can’t survive the persistence of video truth. So good for MFA for continuing to shock us all with the rampant cruelty tat takes place behind the guarded walls.

Ag-Gag Update: The 48-Hour Twist

NPR has an excellent summary of the ag-gag campaign to shut down undercover filming at factory farms, and it includes a great analysis of the latest wrinkle in the industry campaign to stymie efforts to publicize and spark criminal prosecutions, the 48-hour rule:

But recently, the livestock industry seems to have taken a sharp turn in its legislative tactics.

Consider Assembly Bill 343 in California. Introduced in February, this bill would not prohibit a person from seeking employment at a slaughterhouse under false pretenses, which Iowa and several other states have outlawed. Nor would it forbid anyone from using a hidden camera while on the job, which Utah recently made illegal. All that AB 343 would do, in fact, is require that anyone who videotapes or records animal abuse turn over a copy of the evidence to police within 48 hours.

It sounds like the type of bill that animal welfare groups would welcome — but it isn’t. Rather, these groups have branded AB 343 as simply a new, and subtler, attempt to stifle undercover investigations of animal cruelty.

“The 48-hour time limit is a new twist to stop people from compiling information,” says Amanda Hitt of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps investigate reports of animal abuses.

According to Hitt, in order to prove that a serious animal abuse problem is occurring, undercover investigators must gather lengthy documentation. “You can’t prove that animal abuse is systemic and recurring through one snapshot or video of an abused cow,” she says.

For this reason, says Matt Rice of the group Mercy for Animals, “the last thing we want to do is go to law enforcement at the first sign of animal abuses.”

It is a very shrewd legislative strategy because it sounds so reasonable:

But Justin Oldfield, of the California Cattlemen’s Association — AB 343’s sponsor — says the bill only intends to protect animals. Rather than allowing witnesses to keep quiet while they continue to film or photograph, Oldfield says, the bill mandates prompt reporting. He says that requirement will allow enforcement agencies to take swift action at the first indication of abused animals.

Putting aside any cynicism or belly laughs Oldfield’s statement may inspire, NPR turns to UCLA to ask: so who’s right?

Taimie Bryant, a professor at UCLA School of Law who focuses on animal law, tells The Salt that public prosecutors tend to prioritize types of crimes other than those involving animal cruelty….

…She says legal action usually only occurs if there is media coverage, public outrage and pressure to prosecute.

“Public response [to livestock abuse videos] and clamor are what usually moves these types of cases up the ladder of priorities and motivates prosecutors to take action,” she says.

Even in court, judges are often easy on defendants “if the evidence of animal abuse is thin,” Bryant says.

So that’s the analysis. NPR comes up with a good concrete example of how resistant prosecutors are to tough sanctions:

In 2009, Mercy for Animals publicly revealed seven weeks’ worth of footage recorded at the Willet Dairy in Locke, N.Y. The videos show employees cutting off cows’ horns and tails without using anesthesia. Bellowing calves are seen dragged by the legs away from their mothers. At least one worker was recorded digging his fingers into a struggling calf’s eye socket. Eventually, an employee named Phil Niles was fined several hundred dollars on a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction.

The Cayuga County district attorney who handled the case, Jon Budelmann, tells The Salt that Niles’ conviction was based largely on footage that showed Niles hitting a cow on the head with a wrench. Other events and images recorded at the Willet Dairy might also appear cruel to some outsiders, he says. But those events did not provide grounds for criminal prosecution, because “they were considered normal within the industry,” Budelmann explains.

You can imagine whether Budelmann would have done anything at all without the publicity. And someone should probably tell him that the question of prosecution should turn on what the law says, not what is “normal” within the industry. The fact that the practices uncovered by Mercy For Animals are “normal” within the industry actually shows the degree to which prosecutors have totally failed to protect animals and hold the industry to even the minimal animal care standards required by the laws which are on the books.

Oh, here’s one more concrete example of how awareness by regulators and prosecutors doesn’t really do much for the animals, while public outrage can change the equation:

Take the case of USDA veterinarian and slaughterhouse inspector Dean Wyatt. In 2010, Wyatt testified before a House subcommittee that, on several occasions, he was either overruled or threatened with demotion or transfer after he told superiors about instances of extreme animal abuse he’d witnessed.

Wyatt said he’d seen employees butchering live animals at both Bushway Packing, a veal plant in Vermont, and at Seaboard Foods, a pig slaughterhouse in Oklahoma.

“He went up the chain of command reporting violations [at the Bushway veal slaughterhouse in Vermont], and they did nothing until the Humane Society [of the United States’] video came out,” says Hitt with the Government Accountability Project.

Because the laws and the prosecutors have failed to rein in serial abuse at factory farms, the single greatest protection animals at factory farms have left is public outrage. Public outrage gets fast food buyers to go elsewhere, and it gets people to stop eating meat, and that hits factory farms in the one place they care about: their wallets.  Which, of course, is why they are pursuing the ag-gag strategy. Apparently, that is easier and less costly than actually stopping the abuse.

Great article. Now you know how to respond to anyone who says that the 48-hour rule is a reasonable solution.

Fighting Back

Mercy For Animals is one of the best outfits fighting animal cruelty in factory farms, and opening consumers’ eyes. And apparently they make a great year-end video too.

At the end of this you can almost believe there will be a time when most people are vegetarian, and factory farms are a distant and ugly memory.

Butterball Abuse

Is it even possible to take an undercover camera into a meat production facility and NOT find abuse? Apparently not.

Apologies to all of you out there who are starting to lick your lips over the idea of a big, fat, gravy-doused turkey on your table next week. But Mercy For Animals has got another undercover investigation that should give you pause:

In October of 2012, an MFA investigator documented a pattern of shocking abuse and neglect at numerous Butterball turkey operations in North Carolina, including:

  • workers kicking and stomping on birds, dragging them by their fragile wings and necks, and maliciously throwing turkeys onto the ground or on top of other birds;
  • birds suffering from serious untreated illnesses and injuries, including open sores, infections, and broken bones; and
  • workers grabbing birds by their wings or necks and violently slamming them into tiny transport crates with no regard for their welfare.

Worse, these are exactly the same sorts of things that Mercy For Animals found at a Butterball plant last year (an investigation which led to criminal animal abuse charges against plant workers). So I guess humanely producing a Thanksgiving turkey is not really in our culture despite how much we revere Thanksgiving and turkeys.

Here’s what Mercy For Animals says about what it did with its footage, and why the practices shown are so cruel:

Following the investigation, MFA immediately went to law enforcement with extensive video footage and a detailed legal complaint outlining the culture of cruelty at Butterball. Law enforcement is investigating.

Unfortunately, the lives of turkeys in Butterball’s factory farms are short, brutal, and filled with fear, violence, and constant suffering. While wild turkeys are sleek, agile, and able to fly, Butterball’s turkeys have been selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, that many of them suffer from painful bone defects, hip joint lesions, crippling foot and leg deformities, and fatal heart attacks.

Even though domestic turkeys have been genetically manipulated for enormous growth, these birds still retain their gentle, inquisitive, and social natures. Oregon State University poultry scientist Dr. Tom Savage says that turkeys are “smart animals with personality and character, and keen awareness of their surroundings.”

In fact, animal behaviorists, veterinarians, and scientists agree that turkeys are sensitive and intelligent animals with their own unique personalities, much like the dogs and cats we all know and love.

As the world’s largest producer of turkey meat, Butterball is responsible for 20 percent of the 252 million turkeys raised and killed for food each year in the United States, and 30 percent of the 46 million turkeys who are killed for Thanksgiving.

Even if you want to eat a cruelty-free turkey for Thanksgiving, there are only a handful of farms left in America that raise turkeys which live normal turkey lives and haven’t been genetically modified in painful ways.

Anyhow, for all these reasons, we’re going for a turkey-free Thanksgiving this year, even though there will be some meat-eaters around our table (one of the perks of doing the cooking!). And if you want to give it a shot, here’s a bunch of good recipe ideas.