Employee vs. Animal Welfare: The Fight for Rights
By Michael Broadway and Donald Stull for CSRwire
In early 2008, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released a video showing workers at a California slaughterhouse using electric prods on cattle unable to stand on their own (called downers) and ramming them with forklifts to make them stand for inspection. (Federal law requires that animals be able to walk into the slaughterhouse, and downed cattle are banned from human consumption because inability to stand may be a symptom what is commonly called mad cow disease.)
In response to public outrage generated by the video, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended operations at the plant. A few weeks later the company announced it would “voluntarily” recall 143 million pounds of beef deemed unfit for human consumption, a third of which had gone to the nation’s school lunch program.
A year later the company was out of business.
Videos of animal cruelty have become a mainstay of campaigns against so-called factory farms, where animals are raised in close confinement. A visit to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] website finds a documentary narrated by Alec Baldwin titled Meet Your Meat. The video consists of a series of clips of workers inside factory farms mistreating chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows, as well as animals living in confined quarters such as gestation and veal crates where they are unable to turn around. The opening sets the tone:
“What you are about to see is beyond your worst nightmares, but for animals raised on modern intensive production farms and killed in slaughterhouses it is a cold inescapable reality. Once you see for yourself the routine cruelty used in raising animals for food you will understand why millions of compassionate people have decided to leave meat off their plate for good.
Chickens are probably the most abused animals on the face of the planet. They are crammed into filthy sheds by the tens of thousands, immersed in their own excrement, among the corpses of other birds who have died of heart attacks or stress. Some even die of starvation brought on by becoming crippled from growing so large so fast that their legs cannot withstand their weight which makes them unable to reach food.”
Ag Gag Laws Criminalize Reporting on Animal Abuse
Videos such as these have made big food processing corporations very nervous; so nervous that they have successfully lobbied state legislatures to implement “ag gag” laws, which criminalize undercover photography or video inside animal farms. Such laws currently exist in five states — Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah — and they are pending in five others.
There is little doubt that factory farm videos have successfully swayed public opinion in support of more humane treatment of animals. Veal crates, for example, where young calves are kept in strict confinement, have been banned after voter referendums in Arizona and California. Earlier this year Burger King announced an agreement with the HSUS to switch completely to so-called cage-free eggs by 2017.
Last year, HSUS entered into an agreement with United Egg Producers, a major industry trade group, to work together to enact federal legislation to ban battery cages for all 280 million laying hens in the United States. In May, McDonald’s announced that by 2022 it will no longer buy pork from producers who use gestation stalls to house their pregnant sows. A few days after the McDonald’s announcement, Safeway, the nation’s second largest supermarket chain, followed suit.
But this is not the first time in American history that social activists have influenced public opinion about how their food is produced. What has always remained missing from the debate is the welfare of the workers with omplaints by workers and unions against packinghouse working conditions largely falling on deaf ears. In fact, the federal government has made it harder for these groups to document such complaints.
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