What’s the beef?

Proposed animal-cruelty law questioned by activists

Veal calves stand tethered in their enclosures.

Veal calves stand tethered in their enclosures.

photo courtesy of the humane society of the united states

Friends of the California beef industry are accusing animal-rights activists of facilitating animal cruelty.

The sharp twist of irony comes close behind a new proposed law from several California Republicans, including local Assemblyman Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) and Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), that would make it a crime to photograph or otherwise record animal cruelty and not report it to law enforcement officials within 48 hours. Ranchers and beef industry lobbyists say Assembly Bill 343 will help to protect animals.

But animal-rights groups oppose the bill, arguing that mandatory reporting of illegal treatment of animals will hinder undercover investigations of farms, feedlots and slaughterhouses suspected of routinely abusing their livestock. These investigations—dozens of which have made huge impacts on public awareness of animal welfare—often last weeks or months as undercover employees wearing hidden cameras compile long and gruesome inventories of footage.

“If you see animal abuse, I believe you need to go to law enforcement immediately so they can stop it,” said AB 343 supporter Dave Daley, a rancher and the associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Chico State. Daley noted the often-cited investigation at a slaughterhouse in Chino, which involved months of footage and, eventually, led to a major meat recall and a shutdown of the facility.

“That videotape was kept secret for months before it went to the police,” Daley said. “How much more animal abuse was occurring in that time?”

An important question is whether the long-term benefits of keeping quiet while filming animal abuse outweigh the short-term suffering of livestock. Many animal-rights activists believe they do. It was the Humane Society of the United States that led the Chino investigation before making the video public in 2008.

The footage revealed routine abuse of animals and food-safety laws—including the slaughtering and processing of cattle too sick to walk. Had the whistle been blown at the first sign of animal abuse, the owners of the plant might have been notified and the investigation would have gone nowhere, said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of investigations with the HSUS. The undercover investigators, she said, must build a strong enough collection of evidence to lead to the conviction of a suspect in court or prompt changes in animal-welfare laws and policies.

“You have to prove a pattern of behavior to prove this is standard behavior,” she explained.

Although AB 343 would not prevent the observer from keeping copies of the recorded footage or prohibit that person from continuing to capture more footage, the bill’s opponents are concerned that law enforcement officials would tip off owners of the animals that they are being documented by investigators, allowing them to clean up their act before sufficient evidence has been collected to make a legal case against them.

The animal abuse might cease temporarily. The evidence trail would peter out. The investigation would go nowhere. And after the cameras were turned off, business as usual would resume. Such is the scenario outlined by Sweetland.

“To make an airtight case, you can’t just film or document a single event,” Sweetland explained. “Otherwise, the offender will just say the abuse was an aberration, or that they were having an off-day, and that it won’t happen again.”

Sweetland said it would be nearly impossible “to build a case in 48 hours.” Daley said he thinks that “four or five days” of silence while filming could be allowed. Similar bills in other states have proposed a 24-hour time limit on how long an undercover investigator of livestock facilities may remain silent after observing animal abuse.

AB 343 would make withholding such evidence a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine—but Justin Oldfield, vice-president of government relations with the California Cattlemen’s Association, insisted that the bill would not interrupt the work of investigators.

“Nothing in the bill stops anyone from filming animal abuse or from putting it on YouTube,” Oldfield said. He noted that AB 343 would not even require law enforcement officers to tip off the business owner that he or she is being watched—though the bill does encourage individuals to inform “the owner[s] of the animal or poultry, or a representative of the owner[s]” that recordings have been made of people abusing their animals.

Numerous long-term investigations nationwide conducted by the HSUS have required weeks of candid camerawork to gain sufficient evidence to shut down routinely abusive operations.

In 2009, an inspector spent 21 days filming gory abuse of cows at Bushway Packing Inc., in Grand Isle, Vt., which was eventually closed. In 2010, a six-week undercover investigation in Virginia compelled the managers of the Smithfield pork facility to agree to cease the use of gestation crates—cramped boxes that contain mother pigs. In 2011, an undercover investigation that took many months ended a Texas cockfighting ring. In 2012, 30 days of covert observations led to criminal prosecution against suspects involved in the torture and abuse of pigs and piglets at Wyoming Premium Farms, a slaughterhouse in Wyoming that was reportedly providing pork to Tyson Foods.

Mercy for Animals, based in Los Angeles, has conducted more than 20 undercover investigations into animal cruelty at livestock facilities across North America in the past decade, according to Director of Investigations Matt Rice. He said most of these operations took between several days and several weeks to complete.

Nationwide, almost a dozen other so-called “ag gag” bills similar to AB 343 are currently under consideration. Rice said these bills are designed explicitly to prevent the public disclosure of animal abuse—not to actually stop the abuse.

Bills like AB 343 also represent a sophisticated change in tactics by the livestock industry, Rice said. Previously, he explained, several proposals to outright ban photography or video work inside slaughterhouses prompted public backlash.

“When journalists and animal-rights groups went up in arms saying this was a violation of the Constitution, [the livestock industry] began taking a different approach,” Rice said.

While Utah did, in fact, pass such a bill, making it a crime to take photographs, video or sound recordings without permission inside a slaughterhouse or other livestock facility, most proposed laws now pending legislative review seek only to prohibit one from applying for a job with the intention of uncovering illicit activity or, as with AB 343, withholding evidence of animal abuse.

Sweetland at the HSUS characterizes this as “the devious nature of this bill.”

But those in the beef industry claim to interpret the language much differently.

“I really believe [AB 343] was written with the best intentions,” said Daley at Chico State. “I just don’t understand why you would sit on evidence of animal abuse if you like animals. I really don’t understand. Fine, keep filming, but hand over the evidence to law enforcement as soon as you can so they can do something.”