What do they have to hide, revisited

A while back I complained about the proliferation of “Ag gag” bills across the country attempting to protect anyone in the meat production industry from whistleblowers and animal rights groups from filming what goes on in meat production facilities. Little did I know that Utah would be the first state to prosecute someone under such a bill.

Back in February a local animal activist learned of a slaughterhouse a few miles from my house, and that you could view their operations from outside the facility. She and a friend decided to go check it out. Being (allegedly) careful not to leave public property, they took video of the plant and what operations they could see from the street. They were approached by plant employees who told them they couldn’t film there and, when the woman reminded them she was on public property, called the police. Supposedly, the police arrived and could see no indications that the two had trespassed, but informed the woman they would “screen” the case with the prosecutor’s office.

Eleven days later, the city filed charges against the young woman. Yesterday the prosecutor’s office dropped the charges for “evidentiary reasons.” Here are a couple new reports on the case: Salt Lake Tribune – April 29Salt Lake Tribune – April 30, KSL.com – April 30.

My wife and I drove past the place last night headed somewhere else–it’s right next to the freeway, normally in plain view. Right now you can’t see it because of a line of long trailers parked with practically no gap between them, effectively screening the property. While they certainly have the right to do so, just like they have the right to petition the legislature to keep would-be whistleblowers out, I think they’re overreacting. So far the public has shown little interest in getting riled over how food animals are treated. Even KSL’s story leads off with a picture of cows in a green, sunny meadow–at least the Trib shows pictures of the woman involved. No one shows pictures of the slaughterhouse in question, though I doubt they’d try arresting journalists.

But really, when a place goes to that length to discourage even legal observation, you have to wonder what’s going on. Stop in the street in front of pretty much any other business and take pictures, and no one would even notice, let alone care. But there? It’s like a those cheesy scenes in movies when the heroes stumble across something the government is trying to cover up and are instantly swarmed by men in suits talking into their cuffs.

I’m not sure why these people need or deserve special legal protection other than they can donate large sums of cash to state officials. Just remember that next time you’re eating a burger–part of what you paid went toward making sure you have even less of a chance of finding out what’s really in it.

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13 Responses to What do they have to hide, revisited

  1. 1) It doesn’t surprise me that UT would be one of the first. UT is fairly conservative, and conservative people TEND to be very pro-biz, and pro “lets not interfere with what needs to be done”. 2) Which stems from “1”, Slaughter house, by definition, is NOT going to be a pleasant place, no matter who films it, or pretty much what part of it gets filmed. I doubt that most of us want would want to know, or see, what really goes into making our food. I have relatives that own chicken farms down in Georgia. I saw one back in the late 60s early 70s, I forget which exactly, BUT I will NEVER forget the relatively humane way my uncle 13 times removed on my dads neighbors cousins side killed a deformed little chick, SAVING it FROM an unpleasant life … I don’t need to see that or anything like that again. I doubt that people would … be able to handle what they saw IF they saw it, even were it not the shock fest that you say that it is. Not that I judge it one way or the other. Just observing.

  2. Thom says:

    Which was partly my point. Why do they need to go to that level to keep people from filming? If given the choice most people are going to say “I don’t want to see that,” even if someone does get video of it. There is already plenty of video available should someone want to see the process.

    Video of slaughterhouses, feedlots, etc., that are abiding by USDA regulations have nothing to worry about from animal activists taking their videos to the USDA. They’ll just look and say, “Yup. That’s what happens. Don’t come back unless you’ve got a real violation to show.” So the only real value from secret video is when someone is violating regulations.

    Incidents of “eco-terrorism” are rare, so the security concern is minimal. Such people can accomplish their goals without ever getting a look inside the place, and there are already laws in place to prosecute that.

    So maybe I’m missing something, but the only real reason I can see for such protections is essentially to tell these producers “Do whatever you want, just don’t do it when the USDA inspector is around.”

    I wonder if people would be as supportive of these sort of laws if, for example, it were extended to the kitchens at McDonalds or the produce storage at Fred Meyer. Are we in favor of sending a college student to jail for six months for catching video of her co-workers spitting in someone’s drink, and reporting it?

    USDA regs are already lax enough that most meat producers have pretty wide leeway on what they can do. It doesn’t take that much to stay within the regs. Is it such a bad thing for them to focus their attention on staying legal rather than lobbying lawmakers to make it harder for them to get caught instead? There are many, as you said, who already choose to treat their animals humanely. I applaud them.

    Shock-fest? No, I doubt it. Though there certainly are people who have no idea at all, or somehow think the animals live nice, cozy lives in pleasant, green, sunny pastures until they decide it’s time to die and go lay down, all nicely cut and shink-wrapped for sale, on the grocery store’s back door. I’d rather not have people be shocked, but simply look and wonder “Is that really necessary? Isn’t there a better way?”

    I, personally, am not against eating meat. It would be rather arrogant of me, sitting here in America where any food I want is readily available, to tell someone in a lesser-fortunate country that they shouldn’t eat their chickens or cows. But ironically, those animals in other countries are often treated better than they would be here.

    So for me, unless I can guarantee the the animal was treated as well as I would treat it if I were the one raising it to eat, I’d rather do without. My personal withdrawal from the system is not going make much of a difference, I’m sure. I just don’t see why we need laws to make it easier to abuse animals.

  3. Mmmm, I have to disagree. I can see people getting new video, sensationalizing it, and finding a way to get it plastered all over the news. There are certainly a large number of people in the media industry who, unlike you, would leap at the chance, justified or not, to try to impose their non-meat eating ways on others. Further, I don’t really feel like I have anything to hide either, but ya darn well better your cameras away from me, too. I think that this is one more of those topics where you and I are going to agree to disagree. But, in a note on concession to you on this, I am always a fan of proper oversight. What that may be in this circumstance, well, you surely have more experience than I do.

  4. Let me ask you this, then. You say you don’t want people filming you, either. If someone enters your store and takes video against your wishes, what can you do about it? Do you have legal protections? Can you have them arrested? If so, why are more laws needed, covering only a narrow band of industries? If no, why not? What makes them more important than you? Why is a food producer to be more private than a tire store, temp agency, or a video game store?

    I can see protecting a business’ right to privacy, but why not apply it across the board instead of one particular vertical industry? I can understand not wanting to regulate them further, but what have they done to deserve SPECIAL protection?

    I will have to agree to disagree that showing a video advocating for or against something amounts to imposing one’s will on another.

  5. OK, then let us broaden it. But, up til now I haven’t been a target and i suspect that the meat industry HAS been a target, consequently they took steps to protect themselves. GS will not let people film in their stores. Usually people say OK, I suspect tho, that people don’t just say no with the meat people. But, yes, then let us be consistent, and broaden it to everyone. Works for me.

    • Thom says:

      Well, to be fair, if GS is abusing video games in their back room ain’t nobody gonna suffer except GS. There is plenty of room for discussion over what we owe, if anything, to the animals that involuntarily give their lives to feed us, or at least there should be. You do seem to feel that sparing them misery is appropriate, but there is considerable disagreement over what constitutes causing misery and what is simply “taking care of business.”

      In any case, I highly doubt anyone will be taking your meat away from you any time soon. As you’ve said, people prefer not to know the details, and they’d want to know even less if doing things differently resulted in a price increase. I don’t think a thousand sensationalized videos will change that. Other than exposing public health risks from time to time, I don’t think secret videos have really accomplished anything anyway.

      On the other hand, there have been voluntary changes within individualized segments of the industry, such as the veal producers’ decision to eliminate confinement crating of calves by 2017. They’re ahead of schedule and reporting positive results, but that change was, in part, brought about because of changing public perceptions. Somehow someone communicated what conditions were like for veal calves, enough people heard it, and decided they didn’t like it. The producers decided to change, and that to be fair, they would all need to do it together. To my knowledge it didn’t involve any secret video.

      So, do I agree with the activists who are going to great lengths to get these kinds of videos? No. Especially not if they’re going in to just to get sensational footage of legal activities. I certainly have less of a problem with the laws that simply say video evidence of reg violations must be turned in to authorities within a certain time frame.

      But to invoke one of our favorite topics, could this have unintended consequences? Will we some day see a case when the only record we have of an assault, a murder, or criminal endangerment, etc., be someone’s mobile phone footage, but the person who took it is afraid to come forward for fear of prosecution, or the evidence must be thrown out because it was illegaly obtained?

      Anyway, I knew I was headed into dangerous waters with this post. People are quick to accuse people like me of trying to convert them to veganism or take away their meat even when all I do is answer their question about why I’m not eating something, so I kinda figured I’d get dander up by actually taking a stand on even an oblique aspect of the issue. The reality is, for all their supposed imposition and targeting, the animal activists aren’t making much of a dent. From 2006-2010 meat sales rose 3% per year on average, and were predicted to continue that trend through this year (http://www.packagedfacts.com/Dinner-Trends-Center-2806009/).

      Anyhow, nothing personal at all, Bill. You just happened to be the voice of the opposition that came forward first. I’m sure there will be others (if anyone else ever read my stuff, anyway 😉 ), and it’s certainly been no surprise you and I disagree on this particular issue. Considering how often you’re the voice of support, I’ll take this particular ratio anytime.

  6. I am in agreement with Bill on this one. Even if I have nothing to hide, I don’t believe for a minute that someone with a personal vendetta (PETA) won’t twist and edit and mutilate it to promote their point. PETA won’t be happy until everyone is vegan. That crowd is so fanatic, they would take anything and make it into a PR disaster. I don’t blame them for not making it easy to record anything. As the oil industry about filming their operations. They don’t let anyone either. Anyone who is a target of the liberal fanatics is scared of what they will do.

  7. I didn’t realize that I was “the voice of the opposition”, and i certainly wasn’t taking any offense to anything that you have said, ‘cuz I don’t necessarily disagree. I thot I was just offering up an opinion about why someone might not want to be video taped, or have their operations video tapped. As we have both said concerning the govt being able to wire-tap, or warrantlessly search our e-mail etc, “I don’t have anything to hide, but they just don’t need to know that much about me.” Regardless, you clearly have a lot more passion to spend on this than I do, and I hope that it doesn’t lead you any needless frustration. I kinda like our ratio, too.

  8. Well, as long as you’re all fine with the anti-gun crowd using the same argument. If a few bad apples are going to abuse things, it’s better to be pro-active and take it away from everyone.

    And remember, the same people that bring you the TSA, IRS, and SEC are behind the USDA. Eat safe, America. Their inspectors are on the job. 😉

    PETA won’t be happy….ever.

  9. I suspect that I am not seeing the connection that you are drawing, there Thom. I’m saying that people don’t need to know that much about me, and that I can see the meat packers feeling the same way about their operations. If the anti-gun crowd feels that I don’t need to know that much about them, I tend to agree.

  10. And for the sake of decorum and civility, I think that I will be ending my participation in this thread. I may be reading it wrong, but this feels like it is ceasing to be just a friendly exchange of ideas, and I don’t want to go there.

  11. Terhi says:

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
    -Mohatma Gandhi

    I think this country has gone backwards for a long time.

    I know PETA is one of the most visible animal rights organizations out there, but like Thom was trying to point out, one bad apple doesn’t make all the of them bad. If it hadn’t been HSUS undercover investigation at Hallmark’s slaughterhouse in California 2008 (I think it was), tons and tons of contaminated meat would have been fed to school kids. Where were the inspectors? Slaughterhouses know when the inspectors will be there and they clean up their act for that hour or so. Rest of the time it’s up to “regular people” to keep an eye on what’s going on. And with this wonderful ag-gag that’s not possible anymore.

    If people don’t care about their own health, they should at least care about the other creatures that we share this planet with. Unlike Thom I don’t have a problem trying to convert people to veganism. Animals don’t have a voice (except when they scream at the slaughterhouse or moan in pain and frustration, because they can’t even turn around in their cages. Wait, nobody hears them, because public is not allowed to go into these places!), so I think it’s up to us “animal right activists” to educate people of how animals are treated. We keep hoping that eventually people will evolve and realize that animals have the right to be respected and right to live, too.

    We can live a happy and healthy life without harming others. Why don’t we?

  12. My last post was a bit rushed, and so might have sounded heated–certainly not as clear as it might have. I was actually amused at that point, realizing that I’ve heard the “some groups abusing things” argument before, most recently from the anti-gun crowd. And the realization that if private citizens and more respectable groups like the Humane Society are banned from filming suspected regulation violations that leaves the US Government the sole protector of your meat supply. And I’ve never heard either one of you express much eagerness to trust their capabilities before.

    In any case, yes, it’s probably best to put this one to bed. I appear to have read points you didn’t make, and to have not made very well ones I thought I did. In any case, we’re probably better off doing our disagreeing at least vocally.

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