California lawmakers should require webcams in meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses

About 90 percent of Americans eat meat, but most of us know next to nothing about where it comes from. That’s no accident.

The Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, that produce most of our beef, chicken and pork are all too often ghastly places where animals are kept in shockingly cramped and unsanitary conditions, full of growth hormones and antibiotics, and are subjected to inhumane and abusive treatment. The corporations that run these factory farms generally do their best to keep them out of the public eye.

But thanks to smartphone cameras, YouTube and the efforts of animal-welfare activists, shocking video from inside the nation’s slaughterhouses has reached millions of viewers over the past few years. In perhaps the most famous instance, undercover investigators from the Humane Society of the United States released video taken from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, Calif., in which “downer” cows too sick to stand were tortured by workers and slaughtered in violation of federal law. Release of the footage resulted in the recall of millions of pounds of beef and closure of the plant, and covert videos from facilities around the country have had similar impacts.

Another result of these investigations has been the introduction of “ag-gag” bills designed to thwart future inquiry in California and about a dozen other states. Some simply make it illegal to record video or take pictures in facilities where animals are slaughtered, or criminalize gaining entry under false pretenses. Others, such as the California measure, pretend to promote animal welfare by requiring that evidence of abuse be disclosed within days, effectively preventing documentation of much more than a single instance of abuse that could easily be dismissed by facility operators and prosecutors as an isolated incident. Ag-gag bills already have become law in Iowa, Utah and Missouri. The California proposal, Assembly Bill 343, sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson at the behest of the California Cattlemen’s Association, was withdrawn in the face of vocal opposition from animal-welfare and journalist groups, but Patterson has stated his intention to revisit it in the months ahead.

The simple truth is that we need to know more, not less, about where our meat comes from. Government oversight is woefully inadequate, as the covert videos reveal. Rather than shielding animal abuse from the public eye, our legislators should require CAFOs and meatpacking plants to install webcams.

“Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring … the concrete walls of slaughterhouses, to be replaced by glass,” food activist and author Michael Pollan has written. “If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.”

Our state and federal lawmakers should give consumers the right to look. The technology is available to open the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses. Public scrutiny could do much more to promote humane treatment of animals and safe processing of meat than government regulation ever will—if given the chance.