The Fight for the Image: Who Gets to Define the Meat Industry?

The new generation of ag-gag laws are already having a chilling effect on the work of animal rights activists.

ag-gag laws

A security guard at the gate of the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in 2008. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It can be difficult to book an appointment with Don the Butcher. He plies his trade in the dry, mountainous stretches of California east of Los Angeles, where 4H memberships outnumber SAG-AFTRA cards. When his phone doesn’t go straight to voicemail (“You’ve reached Don the Butcher…”), you can book an appointment, giving him the address of your small farm. With one clean shot and 30 minutes of practiced knife work, he will kill, bleed, and skin a lamb right where it was born and raised.

But meat like this isn’t cheap: It runs close to $500 for just one lamb. That cost, despite what Don the Butcher’s busy schedule might suggest, is why the industrial meat industry exists. Condensing the time and space required to raise animals, finding cheaper sources of feed, like corn, and expediting the killing and packing process with an assembly line makes meat cheap—as in, eat-it-three-meals-a-day, seven-days-a-week kind of cheap.

The economies of scale put consumers much further away from the animals they eat and the people who raise and kill them, of course. And this separation, according to critics, has led to a lack of transparency and a rise in public health risks and animal abuse.

Rather than taking on activists issue by issue, the meat industry—along with state legislatures in areas where agriculture is king—are seeking to undercut their most effective means of attack, the undercover investigation, by enacting farm protection bills.

These laws, more commonly known as ag-gag laws, were passed in Iowa, Utah, Missouri, and Arkansas last year (and numerous other bills have failed around the country since the beginning of 2013). The state measures aim to discourage undercover investigations of livestock farms and slaughterhouses by criminalizing aspects of animal rights activism. They essentially make it a crime to be hired under false pretenses or possess footage of animal cruelty. 

The argument against ag-gag laws is simple: If images that show the inhumane—if not outright criminal—aspects of an industrialized meat production can’t be recorded, then how will producers be held accountable?

And that’s really the heart of the ag-gag law debate: Who gets to control the images that define the meat industry? The illustrations of rolling green hills and smiling pigs on product packaging don’t mesh with grainy video footage of downed cattle being pushed to slaughter with forklifts. The meat industry is not wholly pastoral or criminally cruel—despite images presented by either side that suggest the contrary—but to control the visual representation is to control the debate.

Supporters of ag-gag laws, for their part, argue that Americans are so far removed from farm life—only about 2 percent of the population works in agriculture—that standard industry practices could be perceived as cruelty.

Speaking at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholder Summit in early May, Joe Miller, a lawyer for Rose Acre Farms, told the audience, “The majority of the videos I’ve seen don’t depict any abuse at all. They may depict things those groups don’t like, but they aren’t animal abuse by any definition.”

Miller’s talk, “Farm Protection Legislation: How It Promotes Animal Care,” was just one part of a larger two-day discussion centered on protecting agribusiness for “the opposition,” as Miller refers to animal rights groups and other critics. “Activists at the Door: Protecting Animals, Farms, Food & Consumer Confidence” was the overarching theme of the annual event. Fittingly, journalists critical of ag-gag laws raised a small outcry when they were denied registration for the event; the following week, video footage of the entire summit was posted online.

(Although the Animal Agriculture Alliance responded to my initial inquiry, it neglected to schedule an interview.)

Walking through the key talking points of “the opposition,” Miller defended the industry from critics on all counts: Agribusiness is hiding something; people have a right to know where their food comes from; animal abuse is leading to food safety concerns; etc.

He also voiced support for farm protection laws, or what he calls “livestock interference legislation.” After drawing the general outlines of the various state bills, Miller emotionally declared, “What they don’t do—and that’s why I get really upset when I hear the term ag-gag, because I think that’s a derogatory misnomer that the opposition uses to try and discredit this legislation—none of these legislative acts prevent the recording of animal abuse.”

Miller presents the mandatory reporting clause included in many of the ag-gag laws, requiring that documentation of animal abuse be handed over to authorities within a period of 24 or 48 hours, in a positive light, saying they “require you to report the abuse.”

“None of them prevent whistleblowing,” Miller concludes. “So how you can come to the conclusion that this is an ‘ag-gag bill’ when you’re required to report abuse is beyond my comprehension.”

Gordon Schnell, a partner at Constantine Cannon who focuses on antitrust and fraud issues, offered his reasoning for arriving at such a conclusion—one commonly held by critics of the law—when we spoke on the phone. “It’s actually quite a clever gambit, if you think about it,” Schnell told me. “The proponents of mandatory reporting—if you want to be a skeptic on all this—they really aren’t doing that to make sure that these people get it to the authorities in a speedy manner but to interrupt any kind of long-term, undercover, thorough analysis that can be done and presented in a persuasive fashion so that the authorities take action.”

In Schnell’s view, mandatory reporting is a ridiculous exercise: Take a photo, turn it in; take a video, turn it in. It’s death to a compelling whistleblower case by a thousand bureaucratic submissions.

However, he does acknowledge that the pro-legislation group’s support for farm protection laws has some merit. “That argument is valid, that things will be misconstrued and regular farming practices could be made to look grotesque,” he allows. But such strict laws move things in the wrong direction, in Schnell’s opinion, on the debate over too much or too little enforcement. Should state law favor the idea of that innocent farmer who might get caught up, unjustly, in an animal-abuse scandal and miss unlawful conduct as a result? Or should protection laws be more lax, allowing whistleblowers to bring attention to abuse—or even promoting them, as is common in fields like corporate finance?

“When we’re talking about food safety,” Schnell concludes, “in my view, I’d rather be over-enforcing things, overseeing things, having greater transparency, even if it does, in some instances, risk the possibility that an innocent farm may be made to look like it’s doing something wrong.”

Noting that it’s historically been the work of animal rights groups that have led to action on animal abuse—not government oversight—he asks, ”If private citizens are blocked, then how is the government ever going to find out about this stuff? It almost makes it a sham to have animal rights laws if there’s no way to exercise or enforce those laws.”

Indeed, many of the most significant cases of criminal animal abuse on factory farms have been spurred by the work of groups like the Humane Society of the United States. In 2008, undercover research by HSUS at Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, Calif., led to the largest meat recall in American history, criminal charges, and the eventual closure of the company. According to an investigation the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service conducted after the recall, “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.”

More recently, the USDA Office of the Inspector General audit of the FSIS’s work at hog-slaughtering facilities found that “plants have repeatedly violated the same regulations with little or no consequence.” The audit cites numerous instances in which food-safety and humane-slaughtering standards were disregarded, noting that inspectors repeatedly failed to issue noncompliance records to the offending plants. 

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The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer looked at the opposite poles of animal agriculture, the small family farm and the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), in his 2009 nonfiction book, Eating Animals. But this summer, when documentarian Christopher Quinn begins to shoot a documentary feature adaptation of the book, ag-gag laws are likely to play a significant role on both sides of the camera.

“The ag-gag is its own story now,” Quinn told me when we got together to talk about ag-gag and Eating Animals about six weeks before shooting was set to begin. “For me, it’s changed and developed from the time the book actually wrote about going into the interior of a factory farm and seeing what’s taking place in it. But now the ag-gag has taken on a life of its own—it becomes topical with everyone that’s involved in the film.”

Doing so will undoubtedly involve running up against farm protection laws—both in terms of the debate, which knows no state borders, and perhaps the very real legal boundaries they impose in Iowa, for example, where Quinn will be working.

Still, after we spoke for more than an hour, Quinn was apologetic for not having a more concrete answer to the question of how the laws will influence his decisions as a director. “I’m in a place where I really don’t know what to think about ag-gag,” he said as our conversation wrapped up. “I’m not going to politicize the situation for me—or maybe I will? I don’t know." 

But his very lack of a definitive plan seems to be instructive here: The production of the documentary might serve as a sort of test study for the new legislative climate. And as a visual adaptation of a written work, the film will contrast the comparative effectiveness of the two mediums. It’s a comparison that’s weighed heavily in the documentary’s favor—which speaks to the particular image-focused nature of farm protection laws.

In Eating Animals, a book that sparked a not-insignificant debate about the morals of consuming meat, Foer explains why farm protection legislation is geared toward visual documentation. “Undercover investigations by dedicated nonprofit organization are one of the only meaningful windows the public has into the imperfect day-to-day running of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses,” he writes. There’s a reason why “A picture is worth a thousand words” is such a well-worn cliché. Eating Animals, with its rich reporting and detail, attempts to do in 368 pages what a single video can manage in less than five minutes: undermine the bucolic visual language of the agriculture industry.

Aaron Gross, the founder of advocacy group Farm Forward, helped Foer experience conditions like those depicted in undercover footage. “Jonathan said, ‘Look, I want to see something firsthand,’ ” Gross recalled. “No one would let us in. So ultimately he was able to sneak in, and it was a powerful part of the book, a very powerful part of the book.”

In Eating Animals, Foer describes the scene at the California turkey farm he sneaks into:

Because there are so many animals, it takes me several minutes before I take in just how many dead ones there are. Some are blood-matted; some are covered in sores. Some seem to have been pecked at; others are as desiccated and loosely gathered as small piles of dead leaves. Some are deformed. The dead are the exceptions, but there are few places to look without seeing at least one.

He goes on to portray “C,” an anonymous activist who helps him break into the factory, slitting the throat of a chick, “trembling on its side, legs splayed, eyes crusted over”—a mercy killing.

“If we were working on that same book now, it wouldn’t be the same situation,” Gross says of the scene, the moment when intellectual understanding becomes a very real, raw firsthand encounter. “That experience would have probably been left out because of the risk associated with this kind of work. And that’s a big difference in terms of the kind of information that’s coming to the public.”

“In some ways, it’s hard to imagine the book Eating Animals could have been written at all without the information I gained from undercover investigations,” Foer said in an email. “Ag-gag laws would have meant there would have been less background information available about animal cruelty on factory farms, there would have been fewer people willing to speak about it, and I would have been less free to do research on my own.” As for the inclusion of that key passage? Foer goes a step further than Gross, writing, “C might never have existed.”

But if animal rights groups are providing oversight where the federal government fails to—and are actively lobbying for stricter animal rights laws on the state and federal level—is an ethical, profitable meat industry really their goal? I asked Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at HSUS, if it’s possible to have transparency without the demonizing of practices that are necessary in order for meat animals to be raised and slaughtered on a mass scale.

“Just because a practice is standard in the industry doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” Shapiro responded. “There have been many practices in this industry that were once standard that are now considered cruel and inhumane.”

Starving chickens for two weeks to manipulate their laying cycle used to be a standard practice; it’s now outlawed. Keeping pigs in gestation crates is currently shifting from standard practice to something that’s considered unnecessary and inhumane by the likes of big food corporations like McDonald’s. “It may be legal, but it doesn’t make it ethical,” says Shapiro.

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Nearly 20 years before HSUS undertook its investigation of Westland/Hallmark, Gene Baur was training a significantly more bulky camera on the Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse.

Baur, who figured in Foer’s book and will be one of the subjects Quinn follows for the film, doesn’t spend his days (or nights) sneaking into factory farms anymore. But the president of Farm Sanctuary gets a somewhat wistful, good-old-days tone in his voice when he talks about the investigations he did in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Back in the mid-’80s, there were very few people doing it,” Baur says of those more innocent days. “I would just walk into these places and videotape and hopefully no one would see me. Or, I would go into a big factory farm and just wave and people would wave back and think I belonged there.”

By the time Baur started investigating Westland/Hallmark, “the industry had gotten much more concerned about visitors,” he says—a vast understatement. In 1990, Kansas passed the Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act. Montana and North Dakota followed suit, passing farm protection legislations in 1991 and ’92, respectively.

A federal law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, also passed in 1992, and Farm Sanctuary was briefly added to a list of groups that “have perpetrated acts of extremism in the United States.” That was the first time the federal government flirted with labeling animal rights activists as terrorists—the quote comes from “Report to Congress on the Extent and Effects of Domestic and International Terrorism on Animal Enterprises”—an approach that was picked up again in 2006, when the federal law was rewritten and renamed the Farm Enterprise Terrorism Act.

Surprisingly, over the course of the past 23 years, none of the laws have been used to prosecute or convict a farm animal rights activist, a whistleblower, or an undercover journalist.

The new generation of farm protection laws have not been faring that well either—in state capitals, the legal system, and the court of public opinion. Four laws were passed last year, and since the beginning of 2013, increasingly contentious campaigns have been waged by activist groups against proposed laws in 12 states; none has been signed into law. The editorial boards of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe all came out against farm protection legislation, and celebrities ranging from Ellen DeGeneres to Carrie Underwood have spoken out against the laws.

On May 13, Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the law passed by his party colleagues in the state house and senate after Attorney General Bob Cooper called the bill “constitutionally suspect.” It’s only the second time he’s reached for the veto pen during his governorship.

And in Utah, activist Amy Meyer was set to be the first person to be prosecuted under one of the new laws, but her case was thrown out in April; Meyer stayed on public property while shooting footage of the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. on her cell phone and thereby did not violate the 2012 law.

But that’s not to say the legal climate isn’t influencing animal rights groups. “I think a lot of the effect and a lot of the intent behind these bills, in terms of understanding the strategy, is not to get laws in place but to create an atmosphere of fear,” Aaron Gross said, suggesting that the legislative push is more about soft power than about creating a new means by which to prosecute activists and whistleblowers.

That chilling effect is already coming to bear on the film, according to Gross. “Our ability to find someone doing this work, that could be talked to and be part of the film, it just dried up—and certainly not in an ag-gag state,” he says. “In Iowa, people are scared to do undercover investigations. And these are not shy people who do these in the first place—there’s always a high degree of risk and challenge involved.”

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