By Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary President & Co-Founder
In 1986, while investigating Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania, I found a living sheep collapsed among the carcasses of the stockyard’s “dead pile.” She was a “downer,” an animal too sick or weak to stand, and she had been left there to die. She was the first animal rescued by Farm Sanctuary, then a fledgling advocacy organization. We named her Hilda, and we shared her story, illustrated by a photograph of her lying on that dead pile.
Hilda inspired us to intensify our investigations of Lancaster Stockyards, where we discovered that the mistreatment and neglect of downers was business as usual. We organized a protest, which garnered media attention and exposed the stockyard’s disregard for animal welfare. The public was outraged, and Lancaster Stockyards was compelled to announce that it would humanely euthanize downed animals instead of leaving them to suffer on its premises. By documenting and publicizing conditions at this facility, we were able to bring about necessary reforms.
Were I to advocate in the same way for an animal like Hilda today in North Carolina, I would be committing a criminal act.
This is the true story of how the meat industry is manipulating our legislative process so that it can continue to abuse animals and workers while jeopardizing public health and our environment.
The 2008 Meat Recall: Our Schools’ Food at Risk
The story begins in 2008 with the nation’s largest meat recall: The United States Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of potentially diseased and dangerous meat after an investigator from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) revealed systemic violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act at Hallmark/Westland, the second-largest National School Lunch Program beef supplier. Day after day, the plant had been shipping meat to our nation’s schools from animals too sick and diseased even to walk, thereby putting our children at great risk for exposure to foodborne pathogens and other diseases and illnesses, including Mad Cow Disease.
To force diseased and disabled animals to walk, workers were “ramming cows with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks to sensitive areas, dragging them with chains pulled by heavy machinery, and torturing them with a high-pressure water hose to simulate drowning as they attempted to force these animals to walk to slaughter,” according to HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle. Not only was this cruel, it also represented a violation of state and federal laws. Remarkably, just a few years before the HSUS investigation, the Hallmark/Westland plant in question had been honored as a USDA “supplier of the year.”
The Humane Society and federal government sued Hallmark for endangering the health of our nation’s school kids in violation of signed contracts. The case concluded last November when the plant’s owners agreed to a mostly symbolic (the company was already bankrupt) $500 million settlement.
The Meat Industry’s Response
This investigation was just one in a long line of undercover probes by animal protection organizations. Every year, we see more of these investigations; sadly, every investigation finds new and horrific abuses of animals in violation of federal and state laws, often while on-site government inspectors look the other way.
Responsible or savvy industries would answer this overwhelming evidence of flagrant and endemic law-breaking with a serious commitment to change their behavior. They would reform their practices to eliminate the culture of cruelty that seems to infest industrial farms and slaughterhouses. They would, as USDA consultant and slaughterhouse expert Dr. Temple Grandin has suggested, install video cameras to monitor for animal abuse and food safety problems, and they would hire independent inspectors to review the video and make sure that there was no gratuitous abuse and that dangerous meat was not being sold.
Incredibly, instead of working to prevent the abuse, the meat industry is now vigorously pushing laws to prevent people from finding out about it — to make criminals not out of the animal abusers or those who foist dangerous meat onto school-children, but out of undercover investigators. That’s right: The industry’s response to years of evidence of egregious, and often criminal, animal cruelty and of diseased and adulterated meat entering the market is to attempt to outlaw undercover investigations. In 2011, the meat industry backed laws in four states to make taking photos or videos on farms and slaughterhouses illegal. In 2012, the industry pushed similar laws in 10 states. This year, we expect even more.
New Laws, Same Effect
These newest iterations of the whistleblower suppression bills have come in two new packages, both of which would protect illegal and unethical activity from ever seeing the light of day.
The first version criminalizes making false representations while applying to work at an industrial farm or slaughterhouse. If you are affiliated with a charity that cares about animals, the environment, or workers, you don’t get the job. The intent of this bill is to block undercover investigators from, say, The Humane Society of the United States, Human Rights Watch, or Brian Ross’ investigative news team from getting jobs where they could witness and record abuse of animals or workers, illegal disposal of waste, or other unethical and illegal practices.
The second version requires that any witnessed illegal activity be reported to authorities and all video documentation turned over immediately. It’s certainly possible that animal-friendly legislators are supporting this bill out of concern for animals, but, of course, undercover investigations, whether of a drug ring or organized crime syndicate or factory farm, require that the investigator document the full extent of the illegal activity. If the FBI or CIA stopped an investigation at the first sign of criminal activity, wrong-doers would be inadequately punished, if they were punished at all, because the full extent of the criminal behavior would not be known.
Similarly, if an investigator witnesses illegal abuse of animals and immediately turns in that evidence without thorough documentation, the plant may receive a slap on the wrist (at best), the investigator leaves the plant, and business-as-usual continues. Of course, the real goal (and effect) of this bill is that no investigations happen in the first place.
That’s why animal protection groups from the ASPCA to the Humane Society of the United States to my organization, Farm Sanctuary, are lining up against these bills, and no humane organization is supporting them. If these bills were good for animals, they would have the support of the humane community, not the meat industry.
It is worth noting that time and again during undercover slaughterhouse investigations, plant management has been made aware of abuse (or actually has participated in it themselves), and federal inspectors were on site at all times. So, in addition to destroying the power of the investigations to begin with, turning in evidence of illegal activity to authorities before a full case can be prepared would be unlikely to result in any meaningful improvements whatsoever. For example, all of the abuses at the Hallmark plant, which sent millions of pounds of diseased meat into our nation’s schools, took place while no fewer than five federal inspectors were present. Yet, between 2004 and 2008, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General reports that it “found no evidence that in-plant inspectors wrote [non-compliance records] or took suspension actions for humane handling violations.” In other words, the USDA inspectors knew of the abuse and did nothing to stop it — action was taken only after the HSUS’s investigation was made public.
Here are just a few more examples of oversight problems that elucidate the need for these independent investigations:
At a plant in North Carolina, workers violently kicked and stomped on turkeys among other sadistic abuses that led to multiple cruelty convictions. USDA inspectors did nothing to stop the abuse, and the state’s director of Animal Health Programs even tipped off the company to an impending raid (she was subsequently convicted of obstruction of justice).
At a plant in Iowa, cattle had their tracheas ripped out and their throats slit open while they were still conscious; they were then dumped onto the ground, where 1 in 10 remained alive and struggling to stand for more than a minute. USDA investigators did nothing and no USDA personnel were fired after the abuse came to light.
At a plant in Vermont, a worker used a shock pole to repeatedly shock non-ambulatory calves who were too injured to walk and then hit them at the top of their skulls with a captive bolt tool. The calves often remained conscious, bleeding and kicking for minutes, sometimes hours. A USDA inspector in the plant, Dr. Dean Wyatt, testified before Congress that he was reprimanded and threatened with termination by his supervisors for trying to report abuse at the plant.
Take Action: Oppose Whistleblower Suppression Bills
Every conviction of a slaughterhouse or industrial farm worker has come about because of an undercover investigation from an animal protection organization. And every one of these investigations would have been impossible and the dangerous Hallmark/Westland meat would still be pouring into our nation’s schools, if these states had passed any version of these whistleblower suppression bills.
More than two-thirds of Americans “support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms, including 54 percent who strongly support the efforts,” according to a poll commissioned by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). But they will be illegal in any state that passes any version of these anti-whistleblower bills.
As the editorial page editor of the largest daily paper in Wyoming put it following an HSUS investigation of an industrial pig farm in that state, “Criminalizing undercover investigations at such farm operations would effectively tell the owners that they can do anything they want to their livestock.”
And whistleblower suppression bills don’t just harm animals, they also harm our freedom of speech, environmental efforts, and worker rights — which is why these bills are opposed by more than thirty charities, including The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, the Sierra Club, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Over the past two weeks, news outlets across the country have reported on the USDA’s closure of a cattle slaughter facility in central California for “egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.” The agency was alerted to misconduct at Hanford’s Central Valley Meat Co. by animal protection organization Compassion Over Killing, whose undercover investigator gathered footage of workers shooting cows in the head repeatedly with a captive-bolt gun after the first shot failed to stun them, of a conscious cow flailing as she hangs from her back leg on the chain that will carry her to the throat-slashing station, and of sick or injured cows struggling as workers roughly try to force them to stand.
The cruelty uncovered at Central Valley Meat sickens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. The company and the industry will allege that the recklessness and brutality brought to light there are an aberration, but after more than 25 years investigating the abuse of downed animals and advocating on their behalf, I can tell you that such conduct is all too common.
Central Valley Meat Co. is one of many operations that specialize in slaughtering dairy cows whom producers deem “spent.” To keep cows in constant milk production, dairies subject them to an unremitting cycle of impregnation, birth, and lactation. Producing more than twice as much milk they did 40 years ago, cows are impregnated every year and are milked during seven months of their nine-month pregnancies. They are pushed to their biological limits. After a few years of this, they are exhausted — their bodies depleted, their bones brittle, their udders often painfully infected with mastitis. When they are no longer profitable as milking cows, these poor animals are sent to slaughter.
It was at a stockyard that a Farm Sanctuary rescue team found Fanny. This “spent” cow, had clearly endured not only the ordeal of milk production but also the misery of neglect. Her horribly overgrown hooves made every step excruciating, and her legs buckled under the weight of her enormous udders. Instead of trying to help her, stockyard workers hit her with wooden poles to make her move, striking her every time she fell, attempting to force her to get up.
Fanny and Orlando
As soon as we could gain access to Fanny, we brought her to Cornell’s veterinary hospital where we assumed she would need to be euthanized. Despite her ailments, however, with the care she received, Fanny began to revive. Within hours, her eyes were brighter, and by the next day she was standing on her own and greeted us with a loud moo. Against the odds, Fanny still had plenty of life in her.
And even after years of seeing every calf she bore taken away within hours of delivery, Fanny also still had a strong desire to be a mother. At our New York Shelter, she met Orlando, Arnold, Tweed, Conrad, and Milbank, young male dairy calves sold at auction for cheap beef when they were newborns and later rescued after their buyer shot six others purchased with them. The mother who had never known her calves and the calves who had never known their mothers claimed each other at once and became a blissful family.
The devotion Fanny and her adopted sons have for each other underscores the tragedy of dairy production. These animals suffer not only physically but emotionally. The lives denied them are not ones of mere survival but ones of intimacy, loyalty, and joy.
The slaughter of animals too sick, injured, or weak to stand and walk on their own (“downers” as the industry calls them) at Central Valley Meats, a supplier for the USDA’s national school lunch program, has justly raised concerns about the safety of the U.S. meat supply, not least because the violations occurred under the noses of two USDA inspectors stationed at the plant. Under federal regulations instituted in 2009, in part at the urging of Farm Sanctuary, the slaughter of downed cattle for human consumption is prohibited. Without strict oversight, however, businesses will continue to push downed cattle onto the kill floor, squeezing profit out of every animal they can. They will also continue to slaughter downed pigs, sheep, and goats with impunity, since these animals are as yet exempt from the regulations that are supposed to apply to downed cows.
Every year, more than one million animals become so sick or injured that they are unable to walk to slaughter. We are still fighting against great resistance to keep even these extremely unwell animals from being killed for food. If our government demanded that all animals slaughtered for human consumption actually be healthy, by any sane definition of the word, and if that regulation was actually enforced, the slaughter industry would be brought to its knees.
The USDA has decided against a recall of Central Valley Meats beef. I hope this does not put the matter to rest for consumers. This investigation has given people across the country a glimpse into an industry that breeds, raises, transports, and slaughters animals with systematic disregard for their welfare and for the welfare of those who consume animal products. I hope this story will make people think about the history of the meat on their plates, and I hope it will inspire them to replace that meat with food that has not been created with such callousness.