March 18, 2013

Across the country, bills seek end to animal abuse videos

Backers claim their goal is to act quickly, but animal welfare groups say it takes time to build a case.

The Associated Press

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In an April 22, 2010, image from video, a Hallmark Meat Packing slaughter plant worker in Chino, Calif., uses a forklift to try to prod a sick cow to its feet. Legislators across the U.S. are introducing laws making it harder for animal welfare advocates to investigate cruelty and food safety cases.

Humane Society of the United States via The Associated Press

In reaction to concerns, the USDA has been working to improve enforcement of its humane handling regulations over the past two years, including establishing an ombudsman position that accepts reports of violations. Last year, 24 new positions in the Food Safety Inspection Service were dedicated to humane handling, said a high-ranking food safety official not authorized to speak publicly.

That hasn’t slowed investigations or the bills designed to stop them. The Arkansas bill goes further than the others and would bar anyone other than law enforcement from investigating animal cases.

Last year, Iowa passed a bill making it illegal to deny being a member of an animal welfare organization on a farm job application. Utah passed one that outlaws photography.

Most of the sensational videos of abuse in recent years are shot by undercover operatives who surreptitiously apply and are hired by the meat processors for jobs within the facilities.


One recorded last year by Compassion over Killing at Central Valley Meats in Hanford, Calif., showed a worker standing on a downed dairy cow’s nostrils to suffocate it and others shot in the head, prompting several fast-food chains to cancel hamburger contracts, at least temporarily.

Animal welfare groups say investigations take weeks because the operatives nose around only when they aren’t performing the duties for which they were hired.

An HSUS investigator was in the Hallmark plant in Southern California for six weeks between October and November 2007, when the nonprofit turned over to the local district attorney evidence that included fraud in the federal school lunch program because animals too sick to walk were being slaughtered. In January 2008, HSUS released the video to force the DA to act. Two employees were convicted of cruelty charges.

In April 2009, the Quality Egg of New England farm in Turner, Maine, made headlines over an undercover video – shot by Mercy for Animals – documenting mistreatment of hens from December 2008 to February 2009. Maine Contract Farming ended up paying $25,000 in penalties, and a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations.

Also in 2009, HSUS spent 21 days in the Vermont slaughterhouse where male calves born to dairy cows were killed for veal.

“Believe me, our investigators would like to be out of there as soon as possible. They’re stoic, they’re courageous, but they are not enjoying their work at all,” said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of investigations for HSUS.

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