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Guest opinion: Industry hides animal cruelty instead of ending it

Erik Nicholson and Paul Shapiro

Earlier this year at a factory farm that is a member of the Darigold Cooperative in Washington, workers were informed of a new employment policy: If any worker is caught taking photos or video footage at the facility, he or she will be “subject to immediate dismissal.”

We have been hearing from many Darigold farmworkers about poor treatment of both cows and workers. Too often, workers are forced to milk sick and injured cows instead of helping the cows get treated. Too often, workers bring their own drinking water to work because of filthy conditions at the dairy.

 The animal agriculture industry’s desire to prohibit documentation of abusive conditions isn’t new, unfortunately. Numerous whistleblowing exposés inside our nation’s factory farms and slaughter plants in recent years have shown terrible conditions for animals and workers alike, leading to meat recalls, plant shutdowns, criminal convictions and more.

 Yet the meat industry’s response hasn’t been to try to prevent these abuses. Instead, it’s simply been to prevent Americans from finding out about the abuses (by prohibiting employee video- and photo-taking, for example). Sometimes it’s a corporate policy such as in this case, but in others, the meat and dairy industries have tried to pass “ag-gag” laws aimed at criminalizing whistleblowing. These state bills – defeated in nearly all instances but often reintroduced the following legislative session – illustrate just how desperate animal agribusinesses are to keep Americans in the dark about how their food is produced.

In fact, just this year, in the wake of a damning cruelty exposé at a major Idaho dairy facility, state lawmakers there passed a law to criminalize unauthorized videotaping at agribusinesses.

 These ag-gag efforts have brought the industry overwhelmingly bad press, making some insiders hesitant about pursuing such a strategy each legislative session. For example, renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin states that ag-gag bills are “the stupidest thing that ag ever did.” And an analyst for the National Pork Producers Council lamented, “We did a study of coverage of ‘ag-gag’ laws that found that 99 percent of the stories about it were negative.”

 So in addition to trying to pass laws to criminalize whistleblowers, some factory farms are making it explicit to their staff that whistleblowers who seek to document abuses should start looking for work elsewhere. It’s clear what they’re trying to hide: They know that the more Americans learn about cruel conditions on meat and dairy factory farms, the greater the outrage will be.

 Cesar Chavez, the legendary founder of the United Farm Workers, recognized there’s a deep connection between the plight of farmworkers – on whose behalf he campaigned – and farm animals. In one speech, Chavez noted, “We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves. And that’s the basis for peace. The basis for peace is respecting all creatures.”

 So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that groups like the United Farm Workers and the Humane Society of the United States often lock arms in common cause to give a voice to both abused farmworkers and abused farm animals. The two organizations have proudly worked together on a number of successful legislative campaigns of importance to each.

 In this particular case, it’s quite clear that transparency in our food system is critical both for worker protection and for animal protection. Farmworkers shouldn’t be forced to cause animal suffering or to turn a blind eye to it, and they certainly shouldn’t be fired for documenting inhumane conditions.

If the meat and dairy industries are so concerned about people taking photos of their practices, perhaps the answer is to start improving those practices rather than trying to silence potential whistleblowers with threats to fire them.


Erik Nicholson is the national vice president of the United Farm Workers. Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
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