Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Animal cruelty in egg production

Civil Eats has good coverage of the latest in a series of undercover video reports from animal rights groups about animal cruelty at production facilities. In this case, commercial egg production.

To me, the interesting thing is not just the images of cruelty. You can probably imagine that even without seeing the video. The more interesting question from a policy perspective is whether the video investigator can convince a skeptical viewer that the images are routine rather than exceptional. In this case, to my eye, the video is completely and successfully damning. The body language and tone of voice of the workers in the video say clearly, "this is all routine." This factory may be an unusually bad factory, but it is hard to believe the cruelty on camera is atypical in that factory.

Short of government regulation, one of the best ways to enforce humane treatment standards is through self-regulation and third-party monitoring. In that light, isn't this response in a pro-industry editorial in Dairy Herd Management foolish to emphasize that the factory in question had been certified as compliant by the egg industry's monitoring organization? If I were a food industry writer trying to stave off regulation, I certainly would not have emphasized that failure of self-regulation in this case!

The editorial is titled, "Secret Video Footage: Can You Protect Yourself?" The implication is that typical factories -- not just exceptionally cruel factories -- need to keep the public from understanding where its food comes from. If you were trying to stave off regulation, by implementing meaningful private-sector monitoring, is that the line of argument you would take?

No, these people themselves believe they have an awful thing to hide, and they want to hide it well.

Update: Okay, a comment points out that the editorial was not all bad, and I neglected the good parts because I suspected it of cynicism -- coded language where the talk about protecting animal welfare had a nudge and a wink. To give the full tenor, the editorial advises: "Maintain an employee handbook that strictly prohibits cruelty to animals, and enforce the rule on a “zero tolerance” basis."


SUPER DIVA said...

Wow, it really upsets me on how animals are abused, and especially in the food industry! I recently saw a documentary on HBO on the treatment of hogs (pigs)–it was disgusting! And the worst part is that the company (I forgot their name, but will find it) "got away with it" even after going to court! We need to do more about it!

Anonymous said...

After reading your post, I thought editorial was a rant about how to protect against secret taping, which I doubt could be done in any case. Upon reading the editorial, its title suggested that would be the case - "Can you protect yourself". But after reading it several times, it seems their biggest focus is actually doing something about the problem - doing video monitoring themselves and, putting standards in an employee handbook and firing employees who violate it. In reading it I also found only one sentence that mentioned third party industry certification and the way it was stated seemed neutral, not emphasized and, if anything, honest. They do include stuff on doing reference checks but they also ask if the management knew about the practices being filmed. Overall, it looks to me like they are promoting doing something about the welfare problem itself rather than preventing the videoing, which I doubt they could do in any case. In fact, it seems to me they admit that undercover videoing will be done when they ask "Ask yourself how your operation would look to an urban consumer if it were shown on TV, and what you can do to improve perceptions and impressions of your farm and your industry." So your ending comment "No, these people themselves believe they have an awful thing to hide, and they want to hide it well." just doesn't seem to fit my reading of their editorial, which is why I read it several times. In fact, it seems to me more that instead of feeling they have an awful thing to hide, they feel that the public does not understand their system and that they are being misrepresented to the public.

Parke Wilde said...

Fair points. My post gave more weight to the headline. In light of the headline, I took the discussion of worker employment standards to be coded language about how to keep from hiring people who care about animal welfare or might carry a camera, not how to keep from hiring animal abusers. It's ambiguous, right? But, I take your point that the post should have mentioned the dual themes of the editorial, including one that seemed to uphold standards.