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American Humane Association: The Challenges of Policing Animal Abuse

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Humane treatment of animals is a passionate topic in the U.S. -- or so we're told by the country's leading animal rights organizations. Defenders of Wildlife, Mercy for Animals, World Wildlife Fund and the Humane Society are just a few of the organizations that have gained prominence and voice in recent years, propelled by the increasing concern over the fate of animals, both in the wild and in captivity.

In the food sector, that concern is best captured in a 2014 American Humane Association survey, which stated that advocacy is rising: 95 percent of consumers surveyed stated they were very concerned about the humane treatment of animals, and 76 percent of respondents said they would allocate more of their food budget for meat that came from humanely raised animals. The survey was taken to show that the AHA's work, which includes certifying companies that treat farm animals humanely, had value and substance.

The significance of that tally came back to bite the AHA last month, however, when another animal rights organization released footage of employees at an AHA-certified processing plant abusing farm animals. 'Abusing' is perhaps far too gentle a term to use to describe the footage, but would presumably be sufficient for an organization that sees its mandate as "protecting children, pets and farm animals from abuse and neglect." But according to Mercy for Animals, the organization that revealed the abuse, neither Foster Farms, the owner of the plant, nor the American Humane Association came forward to say they would launch an investigation until the film clip actually went public. No statement has been issued on the AHA website addressing the incident.

Most of the attention concerning this scandal has been focused on Foster Farms, which has been under considerable consumer scrutiny for its earlier problems with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. When it comes to consumer confidence, accusations of animal abuse, especially to the degree detailed in the complaint, is an ill-timed follow-up to food sanitation problems.

The AHA might have missed most of the media attention if it hadn't been for venerable animal rights supporter Bob Barker, who is better known for his leading role in the television game show "The Price Is Right." At 91, he is still dolling out checks to animal rights organizations to the tune of millions of dollars. In Hollywood, Barker's scathing condemnation of the AHA found a willing audience and a well-appointed podium.

"I think they have failed miserably in their efforts to protect animals in the movie industry, and obviously they have failed miserably in any protection for animals in this food industry," Barker said in a press conference at the prestigious Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

For many animal welfare supporters in show business, Barker's statement underscores a key gripe that animals are not always as protected as the disclaimer in movie credits state. In 2013, the Hollywood Reporter released a feature investigation into a string of animal deaths and injuries that had occurred under the AHA's watch. The AHA has denied many of the incidents, and it has also denied the wrongful termination of its Studio City-based production director Barbara Casey after two horses died. But for some, the concern that animals are not as protected from injury or pain on the set as the tagline says, still remains a stigma. Last year, a new organization, Movie Animals Protected, opened its doors on AHA Hollywood turf, led by its former production director, Barbara Casey, who maintains the AHA had been warned about problems of abuse.

For poultry producers, Hollywood may be a long way from Fresno, California's packaging plants, but it's likely not far enough for Northwest consumers who want to know that the meat they eat comes from humanely treated animals. Being the biggest organic poultry producer in a region may not count much for Foster Farms if its customer base loses the willingness to buy its chicken. And as many of America's most successful early companies learned, the wealth of a client's investment in an organization is meaningless if consumers don't invest the same faith in the certified product.

Image of chickens: Loozrboy

Image of AHA truck: Trailersoftheeastcoast

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee