Where’s the beef?

Activists accuse beef industry of trying to conceal animal abuse, unhealthy practices

The beef-industry lobby aims to pass a new law that would make it more difficult for activists to document long-term animal abuse at California livestock facilities and slaughterhouses.

The beef-industry lobby aims to pass a new law that would make it more difficult for activists to document long-term animal abuse at California livestock facilities and slaughterhouses.

Photo illustration by priscilla garcia

A Sacramento lobbying agency for the beef industry is sponsoring a bill that it says will prevent animal cruelty and stamp out corruption in California livestock facilities. But animal-rights activists warn that the proposed law will do almost exactly the opposite.

Assembly Bill 343, authored by three Republican legislators, would require that anyone “who willfully or knowingly photographs, records, or videotapes animal cruelty to provide a copy” of the evidence over to law-enforcement officials within 48 hours of its initial production.

Supporters like the California Cattlemen’s Association say the bill is an example of how the beef industry cares about animal welfare and protecting the food supply. Slow Food California, The Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals and other animal-welfare organizations say that it will impede or entirely preclude undercover investigations of suspected illegal abuses of livestock animals.

Jennifer Fearing with HSUS says the great threat posed by the bill is its potential to cut short what might otherwise be long-term undercover investigations of animal cruelty in places like feedlots and slaughterhouses, where regular patterns of animal abuse and torture have been revealed in high-profile cases by employees wearing hidden cameras.

Fearing cites the Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, which was shut down after a HSUS worker spent six weeks there as an employee while secretly filming regular abuses of animals. A legal investigation led to a large meat recall, the shutdown of the plant and criminal prosecutions. The slaughterhouse, which was shown to be regularly processing ill animals, had been the source of beef for a public-schools lunch program.

Had a law resembling A.B. 343 been in place prior, this undercover investigation—and many others like it—would not have taken place, according to Mary Beth Sweetland, director of investigations at HSUS.

“It would be very tough to build a case in 48 hours,” she said. “You have to prove a pattern of behavior.”

The Cattlemen’s Association argues the Chino investigation could still have been conducted with a law like A.B. 343.

“Nothing in the bill stops anyone from filming animal abuse or from putting it on YouTube,” argued Justin Oldfield, spokesman for the Cattlemen’s Association. He added that A.B. 343 would not even require law-enforcement officers to tip-off the business owner that they are being watched—in which case an ongoing investigation could continue uninterrupted.

However, the bill does encourage individuals to inform “the owner of the animal or poultry, or a representative of the owner” that recordings have been made of people abusing their animals.

“The Humane Society could have continued to film, but they would have simply needed to give copies of the film to law enforcement every 24 or 48 hours,” Oldfield said.

Oldfield even blames HSUS for propagating animal suffering by not reporting its observations at the slaughterhouse immediately. “Instead, they videotaped for six weeks, sat on it for a month and finally released it,” he said. “My question is: How many more animals were abused in that time that didn’t need to be?”

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 Vermont, 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. Last year, 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 that was reportedly providing pork to Tyson Foods.

The 48-hour time limit would deny undercover inspectors the opportunity to document repeated mistreatment—which is how “to make an airtight case,” Sweetland says. “Otherwise, the offender will just say the abuse was an aberration.

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, who adds that most of these operations took between several days and several weeks to complete.

He says so-called “ag-gag” bills such as A.B. 343 are designed explicitly to prevent the public disclosure of animal abuse and represent a change in tactics by the livestock industry. Previously, some similar bills nationwide that took a more direct tactic by trying to ban any photography or video recordings inside slaughterhouses were received poorly by the public.

“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 says. Still, around the country, proposed laws—now pending approval—seek to ban either photography, applying for a job with the intention of uncovering illicit activity, or withholding evidence of abuse for more than one or two days.

Oldfield at the Cattlemen’s Association says A.B. 343 has no relation to the origin of these other bills, and that it is “a grassroots effort” of the state livestock industry.

Animal-rights activists aren’t the only concerned parties. The National Press Photographers Association wrote a letter dated February 26, to the bill’s authors alleging that A.B. 343—which will be heard by the Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture on April 17—would violate the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments.

The letter also warned that the bill violates the existing shield law, which protects journalists and reporters from having to disclose information or sources or otherwise endanger the effectiveness of ongoing investigative work.

Sweetland at the Humane Society suspects that the proposed law is intended to eliminate negative coverage of proceedings at livestock facilities. She has an alternate suggestion:

“If they would just treat their animals fairly and humanely, they wouldn’t need to be worried about these embarrassing exposés.”