Spread of Mad Cow Disease and Taking Photos...Where's the Link?

Feeding Chickens Last week, I talked about my brother’s impressive actions in contacting several supporters of the proposed bill in the Minnesota House that would criminalize undercover investigations at factory farms. He has heard back from two of them and I am posting one of their responses and my reactions below.

The first person he heard back from was Rep. Rod Hamilton, chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee which introduced the bill.

Let’s put aside the fact that Rep. Hamilton is a pork producer (and has “worked in the swine industry since 1986”). Let’s also put aside the fact that he served as President of the Minnesota Pork Producers and currently is a member of the Minnesota Pork Producers, Minnesota Farm Bureau, and Minnesota Farmers Union.

These facts, one could argue, would give Rep. Hamilton a more familiar (and thereby better) understanding of agricultural issues over, say, someone like me who has only casually been on farms a few handful of times in my life. One could also say he has personal gain and financial incentives to see this bill pass. But like I said, let’s not go there. Let’s focus instead on his arguments for support of the bill:

From the first half of Rep. Hamilton’s email:

"Thank you for raising your concerns and giving me a chance to respond. Producers care for their animals and most have animal welfare policy statements, a thorough training and audit plan in place to address animal abuse and neglect. If a person then chooses to violate the policy and abuse an animal, then that person will be dealt with accordingly."

Yes, most responsible companies have mission statements in place, provide training, and create avenues through which violations can be addressed. For example, at my last job, we had policies that specifically identified sexual harassment as a no-no, annual sexual harassment awareness training, and anonymous hotlines in which to report problems. That’s what a company, including an agricultural business, is SUPPOSED to do (let’s not pat them on the back for doing what is expected of them). But more importantly, what happens if a problem is systemic within an organization and the organization just doesn’t care? What happens if an employee’s attempt to raise a concern falls on deaf ears, even if proper channels were made available to them? How do you expect an employee’s claim of, for example, sexual harassment by a manager to be taken seriously if the head of human resources as well as the CEO and the board of directors all engage in sexual harassment too? That’s the whole point of whistleblower laws. Even though companies have these policies in place, there is always a need for recourse OUTSIDE the organization. If this bill passes, what avenues would an employee who witnesses animal abuse on a factory farm or puppy mill have? Absolutely none. And that isn’t right.

From the second half of Rep. Hamilton’s email:

"The problem with a person secretly coming onto a farm and capturing video of an abuser is two fold - one, they break bio-security [sic] protocols which jeopardizes the safety of our nations [sic] food supply and secondly, they are just as guilty of animal abuse and neglect, because they do not immediately report the abuse. I think the person who records it and does nothing, [sic] should be prosecuted along with the abuser.

This bill protects the safety of the animal and the consumer.

Thank you for being involved, Rod"

Okay, let’s address the first of his two points here: biosecurity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, biosecurity is (emphasis mine):

"The management of BIOLOGICAL risks in a comprehensive manner to achieve food safety, protect animal and plant life and health, protect the environment and contribute to its sustainable use."

The FAO goes on to define biological risks as “the introduction of plant pests, animal pests and diseases, and zoonoses, the introduction and release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their products, and the introduction and management of invasive alien species and genotypes.”

Here at home, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines biosecurity as it relates to agriculture as:

"…the protection of agricultural animals from any type of infectious agent—viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic."

So unless Rep. Hamilton has direct evidence linking the spread of mad cow disease with photographing a cattle farm (or the spread of swine flu with photographing a few pigs or the spread of avian flu with the filming of a poultry farm or an E. coli contamination of spinach with the photographing of a field or the salmonella outbreak in eggs with the filming of an egg processing plant…or the several other examples of outbreaks of disease in our food chain), then his biosecurity argument doesn’t hold water. Taking photographs of, filming, or audio recording animal abuse does not contribute to the propagation of infectious agents nor does it impair one’s ability to manage biological risks.

With regards to his second point, that those who photograph abuse and neglect are just as guilty as the people doing it because they do not immediately report the abuse, I again go back to the whole point of whistleblower laws. If a problem is systemic and sustained, it is important to gather all the information and evidence you can get your hands on to prove your case in court. Whistleblowing cases have taken months, even years, (remember Silkwood and Deep Throat?) to gather all the information necessary to ensure a fair and proper trail for those being accused of a very serious crime. Yes, I’m saying that farmers should be glad that it takes more than just someone’s word to convict them of a animal abuse. Our justice system was built on the foundations of “a preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Video, photographic, and audio evidence are a vital part of our justice system. Strip that right away from both the accuser and the accused and you’ve got something worse than a broken justice system...you’ve got none at all.

And finally, Rep. Hamilton says that the bill protects the safety of the animal and the consumer and yet there is not a single word in the bill that is proactive. It is a completely reactive bill, taking action only when someone calls foul (no pun intended!). If Rep. Hamilton truly wanted to protect animals and the consumer, he would have instead proposed legislation like California’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. The statute defines acceptable living conditions for farm animals and goes farther to ensure the biosecurity of California’s food supply than anything currently on the book in Minnesota. In other words, I would eat food from California before I would even look at food coming from Minnesota.

Please don’t be fooled by these ridiculous fear tactics supporters of this bill are tossing around. What it comes down to is factory farms trying to avoid exposing the neglect and cruelty that can occur in their watch. If a farm has nothing to hide, if they are proud of their practices, then what are they afraid of?

The fact of the matter is, consumers don’t want their hamburger coming from cattle farms where cows are beaten in the face with metal pipes or their pork coming from swine farms that toss piglets like footballs and neglect sows with injuries or their eggs coming from producers who throw unwanted male chicks into grinding machines while still alive. [Warning: these links take you to videos that contain graphic images of animals being abused on farms. They were shot by undercover investigators from Mercy for Animals and lead to the conviction and punishment of animal abusers and the factory farms at which the abuse occured.]

Consumers want their want animals who are raised for food to be treated with compassion and respect.

So why not give them that, Rep. Hamilton?

Rep. Rod Hamilton can be reached at 651-296-5373 or rep.rod.hamilton@house.mn.