March 8, 2012
In 2008, 143 million pounds of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA were recalled in what was the largest meat recall in U.S. history. The facility had failed to call in USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) veterinarians to inspect cattle that were too sick or weak to stand on their own (known as “downers”), something particularly troubling given that this can be a symptom of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease). Further compounding the issue, the facility was a major supplier of meat to the National School Lunch Program. In response to this violation coming to light, the USDA tightened its rules on downer cattle and California enacted a law banning the slaughter of downed cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats for human consumption.*
What makes this case so important, besides the sheer size of the recall, is the fact that the violation was not initially brought to light by FSIS inspectors. The recall, USDA investigation, and the subsequent policy response were all triggered by an undercover video investigation undertaken by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). Of course, the intent of HSUS or Mercy for Animals, or any other animal welfare group, is not necessarily to highlight public health concerns. Their goal is to bring attention to animal cruelty (and if you watch any of the videos from these types of undercover investigations there is certainly plenty of that as well). There are, however, often-clear links between animal welfare and public health and the Hallmark/Westland case is certainly not the only instance where ones of these videos have also brought food safety concerns to light. As noted by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, a Mercy for Animals undercover investigation at Sparboe Farms last year resulted in both the Food and Drug Administration investigating the farm and finding several violations (including a number of serious violations of regulations in place to prevent Salmonella), and Target and McDonald’s breaking ties with the egg producer.
These investigations serve a purpose, not just from an animal welfare standpoint, but from a public health standpoint. While most of us care deeply about the safety of what we eat, few of us have the means to go undercover at a large farm to confirm for ourselves that acceptable standards are being met. Again, animal welfare advocates are not necessarily looking for food safety concerns, but poor living and slaughtering conditions from an animal welfare perspective are also often the same conditions that increase the risks that animal products will be contaminated with hazardous pathogens. Whistleblowers like these can play an important role in protecting the health of both the public and farm workers.
Perhaps even more importantly, these tactics work to change not just individual behavior but to effect change on an institutional and policy level. When enough people become aware of a food systems issue they can put significant pressure on policymakers and food service providers to bring about change—and let’s be honest, an undercover video documenting poor conditions has a way of going viral that a report by food safety inspectors rarely can. It’s perhaps little wonder then that these investigations have become the prime target of large agricultural interests in the past few years.
Back in 2011, a number of states were trying enact so-called “ag-gag laws,” which would make it illegal to film or take photographs inside farms and slaughterhouses. Thankfully, these efforts failed to pass. This year, however, there seems to be a new angle on the issue. Last week, Iowa’s governor Terry Branstad signed into law provisions that make it a serious misdemeanor for lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility. This new crime of “agricultural production facility fraud” is meant to deter just these types of undercover videos that have served public health interests in the past. While it sounds like there may be First Amendment legal challenges to the new law, Iowa is just one state of many looking to adopt ag-gag laws this year. Mercy for Animals lists upcoming bills in Illinois, New York, Utah, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska. The fight to ensure accountability in animal production looks like it’s going to be a drawn-out one, and the battle may end up in the Supreme Court.
That said, we do not have to be helpless in the face of these types of legislative challenges. We can call our state representatives and voice our opposition to ag-gag bills. We can ask questions about where our food comes from and how it was raised. We can try our best to support farms that make a point of being open about their practices. We can also encourage retailers to take action against ag-gag laws. Says CLF Visiting Scholar Dennis Keeney, “The actions of retail food establishments to ban food from these types of facilities is perhaps the most powerful weapon.” And at the end of the day, who is to say that all of this won’t backfire on large agricultural interests? After all, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that these facilities have nothing to hide when they try so very hard to keep their practices hidden.
*The California law was overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year. There are currently federal efforts underway to expand downer provisions to all livestock animals (including calves, which are currently exempt from downer provisions). This piece of legislation, the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act (H.R. 3704), is sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY).