There is a scene in Robin Cook’s novel Toxin, in which the doctor, whose daughter has died of food poisoning after eating a hamburger, sneaks into a slaughterhouse to try and understand how this could have happened. What he finds there is not only revolting and disturbing to the point of being nightmarish, but also, according to undercover investigations conducted by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), not that far from reality.
Mary Beth Sweetland, the senior director of investigations for HSUS, oversees a team of very brave and dedicated reporters that work undercover, not only in slaughterhouses and factory farms, but also in research labs, puppy mills and zoos.
“I admire the heck out of them,” said Sweetland. “I should probably tell them that more. I wish they could get the recognition that’s due to them.”
Their work and its impact are reminiscent of what Ralph Nader and his team did in the name of consumer protection in the 1970s. Nader’s outspoken activism led to a substantial number of consumer and environmental laws, including, the National Auto and Highway Traffic Safety Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Several federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Administration all came into being, largely as the result of his efforts.
For example, it was a HSUS investigation of the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Northern California, including a video, shot by a worker inside the plant, that captured cruelty and the slaughter of animals too sick to walk, in violation of food safety requirements, and led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef from school cafeterias in 36 states, as well as the ultimate banning of this meat from the food supply.
Likewise, an undercover worker in Vermont, shot video that “showed day-old veal calves too weak to stand being shocked, dragged and skinned alive in the plant,” The disclosure led to the arrest of the worker responsible, the shutdown of the plant pending management changes, and a new regulation banning the use of such “downer” calves.
More recently, disclosures about the cruelty associated with gestation crates in pig operations have led to numerous companies voluntarily backing away from the practice.
As the result of all the negative press and the financial impacts that have come with this degree of involuntary transparency, these large scale animal operations are determined to enshroud their goings-on in a cloak of secrecy, with a set of anti-transparency, or “ag-gag” laws. These laws, which have already passed in Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Kansas, and Utah, with five more states on the way, make it a misdemeanor, or in some cases, a felony, to photograph or videotape commercial agricultural operations. This, of course, means that these brave souls, who are going undercover to shine a light on this outrageous behavior, now face criminal prosecution and possible jail time for doing it.
I guess you could say that this is taking, “if you knew what was in it you wouldn’t eat it,” to another level. But this is no laughing matter. These operations that have, in certain cases, already shown themselves capable of unspeakable atrocities, shoddy safety practices, a stubborn unwillingness to comply with health and sanitation regulations, and blatant disregard for environmental concerns, are in a position to inflict tremendous harm on the world around them and the people living in it.
These actions, along with massively funded efforts to hide the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in food products reveals a truly sinister effort by the industry that provides food to the majority of Americans, to keep us in the dark about how our food is produced. This is just downright wrong. The fact that they have used their lobbying dollars to co-opt the government into abandoning its sworn duty to protect the American people is unconscionable. Clearly, these companies are on the wrong side of history.
I think we have made it abundantly clear in these pages, day after day, from every conceivable angle, that our best hope for a viable future is a trusting and transparent relationship between businesses and consumers, committed to the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.
These companies, clinging to an outmoded way of doing business based on the fundamental absence of transparency, propped up by corrupt relationships with politicians that, desperate for campaign funding, go against the interests of their constituents to support these efforts that pit profits against people and planet, will not stand up to the light of day.
In this era of instantaneous worldwide communications, they are fighting a losing battle against the very consumers they have been selling to, consumers who are become better informed every day and are beginning to demand meaningful relationships with those that they have entrusted to provide them with something as essential as the food they feed their families.
With Thanksgiving just behind us, this is a good time to tip our hat in appreciation of the Humane Society for all the brave and important work that they do.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.