Monday’s veto by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam of legislation that would have required anyone recording animal abuse to turn over the footage to law enforcement within 48 hours is the latest point scored by the opposition in the controversy that has erupted over so-called ag-gag bills, which have been passed or proposed in 17 states. Critics – who range from animal advocates to civil liberties groups to Carrie Underwood, who told Haslam to “expect [her] at his front door” if he signed the TN bill – cite all kinds of problems with the laws: they violate the First Amendment; they silence whistleblowers, threatening food safety, workers’ rights, and the environment; they deny consumers the right to know how their food was produced; and they make it impossible to document a pattern of illegal animal abuse. Animal agriculture’s attempt to keep its most unsavory moments off camera has backfired royally, drawing more attention from more interest groups and shining stage lights on what the industry was trying to keep in the dark.
But you can’t blame them for trying. Multiple undercover investigations in recent years have have caught workers punching and kicking pigs, stomping on turkeys and bashing in their heads with metal bars, and forcing downed cows – those that are too crippled and sick to walk – onto fork lifts to be sent off to slaughter. None of this has been great for public relations. These investigations have led to slaughterhouse closings, animal cruelty convictions, and the largest beef recall in U.S. history. Consumer outcry has been clear: we want to know what’s going and if we don’t like it, we will stop you from doing it.
Not that a video is always necessary to spark outrage. News earlier this year that European consumers may have unwittingly been eating horse meat caused a massive scandal, despite assurances that the meat posed no health risks. No one had any idea how the horses were treated before they became burgers – there was no video – but that didn’t seem to matter. People were horrified to learn they may have eaten a horse when they’d thought they were eating a cow.
Which, when you think about it, is curious. Why do we cringe to think of eating horses (or dogs, for that matter, which is a common practice elsewhere in the world) while we are content to eat pigs, chickens, and cows as long as they are not brutalized? We should hardly be surprised when huge corporations like big-ag engage in egregious practices and then try to keep them hidden. But these controversies may be showing us something notable about ourselves: that we will accept certain levels of violence – which slaughter inherently is – as long as it is only inflicted upon certain animals. The problem, then, with the treatment that showed up on those undercover videos was that it dropped below some threshold of brutality that we will accept when it is delivered upon pigs, chickens, and cows, but not upon horses, cats, and dogs.
A lot can happen in 48 hours—including the slaughter of approximately 50 million animals (not including fish and other sea animals) for food in the United States alone. While ag-gag laws are indeed bad for all the reasons that people have pointed out, including that it often takes much longer than 48 hours to document a pattern of law-breaking, it is simply not true that without these videos we will be completely blind to the violence in animal agriculture, much of which is perfectly legal—unless we’re talking about willful blindness to the fact that, even if those pigs had not been punched, those turkeys not been beaten, and those cows been able to walk to slaughter, all of these animals would still have had their throats slit. Whistleblower attorney Gordon Schnell put this point well, if unintentionally: “Afterall [sic],” he wrote, “we cannot rely on the animals to tell us when farmers behave badly. …Until we can talk to the animals, the furtive photo or videotape is the best we can do…”
But what about when farmers aren’t misbehaving? What about when they are just doing their job of killing animals for us to eat? If we could talk to the animals, would they ask only that we not beat them or keep them intensively confined, that we not let them enter our food supply if they have gotten too sick awaiting their slaughter to walk to it? Or would they beg us not to slaughter them at all, plead with us to eat plants and leave them alone to live out their lives? Undercover videos are extremely important to trigger the emotions that might allow these very rational concerns to resonate. When we watch those videos, however, we should not let revulsion at particular acts of cruelty blind us to an entire system that is violent at its core, one in which we can’t help but participate when we eat animals. If we have no better explanation for why we eat some animals but not others—“[F]ine we eat cows and everything, but horse meat? No.”—perhaps we shouldn’t be eating animals at all.