For nearly two decades, undercover investigative videos have proven to be Mercy for Animals (MFA)’s most effective tool in shedding light on the brutal slaughter of livestock and advocating for changes in regulations in this area. It’s how the animal welfare organization has taken the food industry, particularly owners of slaughterhouses and their distributors, to task.
MFA’s battle recently found a new focus with the release of a new video taken at a North Carolina-based Wayne Farms slaughterhouse. An undercover MFA agent keeps the film rolling as workers break the wings and legs of countless live chickens before shackling them, shocking them with electricity, slicing their throats, and dumping them in hot water. The investigator who filmed the video described the practices as “torture.”
In the days since the graphic video first surfaced, MFA has tried to drum up support among animal rights advocates and affect real change. Matt Rice, MFA’s director of investigations, said that the organization wants Wayne Farms and Gordon Food Service, its client and one of the nation’s largest food distributors, to adopt new policies that prevent animal cruelty on farms.
“There are a number of major food producers that have made improvement including Nestle, which committed to ending the worst forms of institutionalized animal abuse that affected 1,000 farms in 90 countries,” Rice told ThinkProgress. Other policy goals Rice said he would like seen fulfilled include the ceasing of animal breeding and the inclusion of sunlight and clean dry bedding that could reduce the spread of disease among poultry that arrive at the slaughterhouse.
“In the poultry industry, birds become obese and crippled under their own weight and suffer from heart attacks. They’re sent to slaughter when they’re still baby birds. If a human were to grow that quickly, he would be 200 pounds in two years,” Rice said. “Many other slaughterhouses did away with these practices and required suppliers to stop mutilating animals without painkillers so there’s no reason why Gordon Food Services can’t do the same.”
MFA’s latest assault against agents of animal cruelty counts among numerous campaigns it has spearheaded since its 1999 inception. In the early 2000s, the organization conducted several undercover investigations of egg-producing farms that led to the Giant Eagle grocery, Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale terminating their partnership with the implicated slaughterhouses. In 2007, national restaurant chain Denny’s broke its ties with the House of Raeford, a North Carolina-based food distributor, after an MFA undercover video exposed its inhumane treatment of turkeys.
These cases have helped call attention to the shortcomings of the Human Methods of Slaughter Act, a law meant to make the slaughter of farm animals as benign as possible. That measure, which was originally passed in 1958, required slaughterhouses across the country to decrease the suffering of livestock — including cattle, pigs, and sheep — during slaughter. The federal law as it stands today, however, doesn’t extend those protections to poultry, fish, rabbits, and other animals routinely killed for food.
Animal rights advocates issued a call for the expansion of the law in 2004 after a PETA undercover investigation highlighted the abuse of chickens at a West Virginia-based slaughterhouse owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, a supplier of chicken to KFC. That campaign didn’t bring forth the change that animal welfare advocates wanted.
Today, the fight rages on for legal protections for poultry and other livestock not covered by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Even with some improvements to the system, nearly 700,000 chickens are slaughtered while conscious annually. It has yet to be seen if Gordon Food Service will follow in the footsteps of other food companies and cut ties from Wayne Farms. In an email to ThinkProgress, the food distributor said that it will take this matter seriously.
”Gordon Food Services believes in the humane treatment of animals,” a spokesperson from Gordon Food Service wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “As a responsible foodservice distributor, we take this situation seriously. We have always insisted that our suppliers adhere to all applicable laws and regulations, and meet industry standards within their respective product areas. We will continue to work with our suppliers to ensure they operate responsibly, just as we have for the last 118 years.”
Regardless of what action Gordon Food Service decides to take, it’s safe to say that MFA’s methods have done their part in raising the public consciousness while aggravating industry leaders. But animal welfare advocates speculate that many of the atrocities against livestock may never come to light, in part because of anti-whistleblower measures — known as “ag gag laws” — that prosecute those who record undercover videos showing cruelty in animal farms. Despite advocates’ best efforts in recent years, dozens of ag gag laws have advanced in states across the country, after Iowa became the first state to enact such a law in 2012.
In 2013, Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC News in the Food Lion case, told Mother Jones that these laws could impede progress and accountability not just for food producers, but also for leaders of other industries that provide services to the American consumer.
“If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark,” Hitt said. “This is a bigger, broader issue. You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing. You have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate. That should scare the pants off consumers concerned about where their food comes from. It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.”
Employees at MFA have acknowledged that ag gag laws have had a “chilling effect” on the organization’s ability to conduct undercover investigations to expose animal cruelty in major agricultural states like Iowa, Utah, and Missouri.