Attacking the Messenger: Big Ag’s Attempt to Misdirect Attention from Its Own Problems | Civil Eats

Attacking the Messenger: Big Ag’s Attempt to Misdirect Attention from Its Own Problems

Reading agribusiness officials’ responses to undercover exposés documenting egregious acts of cruelty to farm animals can be truly mind-boggling. I’ve written about this before, and feel compelled to follow up with a couple more recent sordid examples.

When faced with gruesome images of mistreatment of farm animals, rather than simply condemning the cruelty, some in agribusiness just can’t leave it at that. They feel the need also to attack the compassionate investigators who put themselves at great risk to go undercover and blow the whistle on such abuse.

For example, a new Mercy for Animals investigation involved videotaping workers at one of the nation’s largest pork companies throwing piglets by their ears and legs across the room, cramming pigs into cages barely larger than their own bodies for months on end, and even leaving pigs with untreated prolapses, sores and other health problems.

And what’s the response of the president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, Dr. Butch Baker? Quite simply: These types of investigations “really are an attack on the rural lifestyle of America.”


Since when does “rural lifestyle”  equate with rampant animal cruelty, and since when did the head of a veterinary trade group (who you’d think would focus on protecting animals) become qualified to comment on such sociological phenomena? It would be interesting to see just how many folks in rural America think a video decrying obvious animal cruelty is really an attack on their lifestyle. Perhaps those in big agribusiness perceive it that way, since cruelty is far more endemic in the meat, egg, and dairy industries than many may think, but alleging that anti-cruelty whistleblowers are somehow victimizing rural Americans would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling.

Another example is the recent Humane Society of the United States investigation into a Vermont dairy calf slaughter plant. The investigator worked as a floor cleaner for a total of 21 days, videotaping days-old calves—some with their umbilical cords still hanging from their bodies—who were kicked, electrically prodded, and in at least one case, even skinned alive.

What’s the response of the exposed plant’s leadership? Rather than accepting blame when caught red-handed, they claimed the investigator actually “provoked” at least some of the abuse by instructing a worker how to act.

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Forget about the fact that after reviewing the unedited segment of the video that would show the allegedly “provoked” scene, the Burlington Free Press reported that no such provocation is on the tape. Forget about the fact that the USDA had cited the plant for inhumane handling three times in 2009—and the plant was shut down two of those times—all prior to HSUS’ investigation.  Just consider how plausible it would be for a brand new floor cleaner, the lowest person on the totem pole, to somehow have the authority to “instruct” anyone to do anything. And it’s especially absurd when you consider that the co-owner of the plant himself is seen in the video abusing animals with gusto—relentlessly shocking, cursing at, and making fun of calves who were too weak even to stand.

These throwback reactions and denials certainly reflect poorly on agribusiness. But there are more welcome signs—a recognition that the real problem isn’t with the taping of cruelty on factory farms, but with the reality of animal cruelty itself.

Agribusiness industry trade publication Feedstuffs recently editorialized about these investigations conducted by animal organizations. To its credit, the paper’s editorial board didn’t recommend continuation of the current strategy of blaming animal advocates for the abuse they merely document. They in fact wrote: “It’s important to understand that companies and producers can’t just say ‘bad apple’ and move on because—to consumers who have seen these videos again and again—there are no bad apples anymore. The bad apple, to consumers now, is the industry.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Paul Shapiro is the senior director of The Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign. Follow him at Read more >

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  1. So true. Unfortunately we just passed a constitutional amendment in Ohio that gives these big companies the power to keep such practices in place and the power to possibly make it difficult for small "real rural family farmers" to operate.

    Sadly too many people were misled by a good campaign that looked good on the surface. The industry is learning how to work through the back door and often voters don't research enough to know who's really behind such issues.

    Until consumers educate themselves about these problems, demand change, and vote with their dollars I don't believe anything will be done. They will just try to cover up their actions with nice logos, slick design and friendly looking campaigns.

    Your most powerfel weapon is where you spend your money, and for me that's the local farm. I give my money directly to the farmer that lovingly moves his cows to fresh grass every day and allows his chickens to roam freely around the farm.
  2. Maddening! This reminds me of a quote about communism I once heard, which suggests that any definition of communism should include the way it's practiced, not just the way it reads on paper.

    Any definition of big agribusiness needs to include the way it's done - meaning that your "bad apple" comment is right on.

    Thanks for an excellent piece.
  3. Excellent post, Paul.

    It amazes me whenever agribiz defends itself by saying a particular case of animal cruelty is an "exception" or "one bad apple" or (the biggest lie of all) "we care about our animals." These cases happen again and again, clearly demonstrating that industrial animal agriculture is more concerned with speed and profits than anything resembling welfare for the beings they exploit.

    The best thing we can all do is deny these businesses our dollars and go vegan. What better time to start than now, with Thanksgiving just around the corner?
  4. Josh
    Instead of making excuses as to why undercover footage demonstrates egregious animal cruelty at farms across the country, agribusiness should focus on being proactive at eliminating its worst abuses. Some examples include confining hens in small wire battery cages, breeding pigs inside narrow gestation crates, and calves inside veal crates.
  5. Megan
    it's a breath of fresh air to hear some folks in the industry are finally placing the blame for animal cruelty where it belongs: on the industry.

    video after video show abuse on factory farms. it's about time the industry admits it own mistakes and, more importantly, starts taking responsibility for their actions by implementing true, meaningful standards of care.
  6. Mary Beth
    Thanks for the great post. May these undercover investigations keep exposing the cruelty that is so endemic to the animal ag industry. When industry says that hens are happier and healthier in cages that cram them together with no room to even spread their wings, it's obvious they are playing the public for fools. Keep it up agri-biz. Your refusal to see the light is turning more and more people toward veganism. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
  7. Thanks for this, Paul. Kudos to the investigators who repeatedly expose these insidious, grotesque and long-standing failures in the meat industry.

    The animal ag industry is its own worst enemy, but millions of animals continue to pay the price.

    Fortunately, now more than ever people understand this and are choosing to go vegetarian.
  8. Amanda
    Great article!

    It is very unfortunate that these big companies are blaming the undercover groups for causing problems. The problem lies within the industry.

    However, I do also feel consumers need to start taking responsibility for how much meat they consume and what food products they choose to purchase. Many of these agricultural practices only became industry "standard" because of the big push for cheap food and so industry met that demand by becoming factory farms where huge numbers of animals can be raised in the shortest time frame. If we want CAFOs and poor practices to stop existing, then the public needs to realize it eats too much meat!

    As a future veterinarian intending to work in the production animal world, I am really trying to advocate for better animal welfare and will definitely only work with producers I feel are treating their animals in an appropriate and positive manner (not industry standards...).

    I really appreciate this article being written and will pass it on to my fellow future practitioners to help them realize that it is important that we all work together to reach better (and proper) animal welfare standards for the animals we use for our benefit.
  9. Abusive animal industries continue to prove that they care more about dollars than the welfare of the animals, environment, or consumer.
  10. DH
    One thing vegans and animal activists must unfortunately consider - what if this IS the lifestyle of rural America? It is possible that some people will never get it... will always laugh when confronted with animal cruelty. In fact, reality seems to point to that fact. So how does the movement handle that reality? We'd like to believe that compassion will win out. But what if it doesn't?
  11. eric mills
    RUN, don't walk, to get a copy of Jonathan Foer's new book, EATING ANIMALS. It's a doozy, maybe the best book ever to help farm animals. Due to the author's fame as a fiction writer, it'll likely reach many people that the animal movement couldn't.

    Ask your local bookstore to carry it. It's getting rave reviews from most of the critics.

    Great gift item, esp. for your family and friends who are NOT big on animal issues. The human health and environmental implications might just push them over the line.

    Eric Mills, coordinator

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