Animal activists protest on the sidewalk outside the Farmer John slaughterhouse against the alleged viral disease and animal cruelty at the Smithfield Food-owned facility in Vernon on November 17, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Real Questions We Should be Asking After the Smithfield Piglet Case

The Animal Agriculture Industry has hidden behind the government for far too long. It's time that changes.

The animal agriculture industry has done a darn good job hiding the conditions of their farms from the public. Why? Because they know if the people saw what was going on inside their farms, they'd be less inclined to eat animal products. From "happy" cows on milk cartons to self-defined labels like "humanely raised," farms give the average consumer the impression they're making the compassionate choice, while they're really in the dark.

The factory farming industry is one of the only industries that has pursued legislation across the country to hide what they're doing behind closed doors. So maybe the bigger question is: why are farms even allowed this secrecy?

This week, animal activists Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Pickleseimer were acquitted after facing felony burglary charges for rescuing two sick piglets from a Smithfield CAFO--or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation--in Utah in 2017. After Hsiung and Pickleseimer posted a video online from the farm, a multistate investigation began. FBI agents raided animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, and even mutilated a piglet by slicing off part of its ear in search of DNA evidence. The two piglets were never recovered and Utah's Attorney General, Sean Reyes, who may have received campaign contributions from Smithfield, led the prosecution.

The acquittal came as a surprise, given the judge barred the defendants' footage of the farm or even speaking about the animal cruelty they documented at trial. Smithfield Foods is the world's largest pork producer. Spokesman Jim Monroe responded to the outcome in an email:

"We raise pigs to feed people with wholesome, nutritious and affordable protein. Any deviation from our high standards for animal care is counterproductive to this mission and would never be tolerated."

So, if corporations like Smithfield have nothing to hide, why do they go to such lengths to suppress images of conditions inside their farms? The factory farming industry is one of the only industries that has pursued legislation across the country to hide what they're doing behind closed doors. So maybe the bigger question is: why are farms even allowed this secrecy?

In the majority of CAFOs, at least those controlled by the giants that dominate the meatpacking industry, there are heinous injustices on all levels. The Fairlife video documenting these abuses went viral in 2019 and caused mass outrage, but Fairlife is not the only abuser. In fact, it's pretty standard. (Check out Jonathan Foer's Eating Animals if you can stomach it).

And the injustices don't stop inside the farms. Animals raised in CAFOs produce massive amounts of waste, stored in huge outdoor cesspools. These "lagoons" release toxins into the air that tank property values and drastically harm quality of life. People who live nearby disproportionately suffer from excessive coughing, diarrhea, burning eyes, headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. There's even evidence to suggest that communities located near CAFOs are prone to birth defects. And these CAFOs are concentrated with brutal precision in low-income communities and communities of color.

Maybe the worst part is that our laws and government not only ignore the problem but even help hide the despicable and socially unjust practices of factory farms. "Right to Farm" laws stop those living near farms from filing lawsuits over nuisances associated with farm operations, despite these nuisances endangering residents. Because North Carolinians living next to Smithfield's Factory Hog Farms won in court against the company (many times), the Farm Bureau and its allies retaliated by pushing to enact or strengthen "Right to Farm" bills in other states. New Right to Farm laws were enacted in Utah, Nebraska, Georgia, West Virginia, and Oklahoma in 2019. These new laws were a chilling play to silence people and could lessen or altogether halt people's ability to use the court system to hold farms accountable for their pollution.

On top of that, over the past decade, the animal agriculture industry has pushed for ag-gag bills in more than half of the state legislatures. These bills are designed to silence whistleblowers revealing animal abuses and public health threats on industrial farms. While many have been struck down, ag-gag laws currently exist in six states, penalizing those who investigate the day-to-day activities of industrial farms, including the recording, possession, or distribution of photos, video, and/or audio at a farm. Many states without ag-gag laws still allow factory farms and slaughterhouses screen out potential whistleblowers simply by asking on job applications, "Are you affiliated with a news organization, labor union, or animal protection group?"

And as long as the USDA keeps propping up factory farms, these injustices will not go away. In 2020, the USDA granted requests for federal funding for the dairy, cattle, and pig industries. As part of the coronavirus food assistance program, the USDA made direct payments of 1.6 billion, 5.1 billion, and 2.9 billion, respectively, to the pig, cattle, and dairy industries. The decision to spend federal taxpayer dollars to support the factory farming industry further enriches wealthy corporations rather than helping small family farms and fuels the industry's expansion at the expense of animals, the environment, marginalized communities, workers, and public health.

Animal agriculture corporations like Smithfield have avoided transparency and accountability for far too long. As vindicated animal activist Wayne Hsiung remarked, "Instead of trying to put us in prison, the better thing to do is just take care of your animals."

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