In February in Salt Lake City, Amy Meyer stood on the street and used her cell phone to record what was happening outside a slaughterhouse. She then became the first person charged under one of the new so-called “ag-gag” laws.
Six states currently have such “farm protection laws,” deliberately designed to stop video recording at slaughterhouses. The bills are largely industry-funded and based on a template drawn up by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Another eight states have similar legislation in the works. Although the effort to clamp down on slaughterhouse recording has never been more organized, two such bills, in Indiana and here in California, recently failed, and the historic prosecution of Meyer also failed when her case was dropped last month.
What the ag-gag bills reveal is the uphill battle the meat industry faces. Footage of sick or injured cows being dragged to slaughter, animal cruelty, and other unsafe and illegal activities are just the tip of the meat industry’s latest public-relations problem. For many people, business as usual in a slaughterhouse is unpalatable—once they’ve seen it.
Some kinds of meat, like wild game and ethically farmed livestock, offer meat-eaters a chance to rationalize their consumer decisions; at least the animals seem to have lived happy lives. But with industrially produced meat, we know it’s an ugly business. And thanks to videos like those that the ag-gag laws seek to ban, we know in great detail how just how ugly it can be.
We can’t forget what we have seen. Nor should we believe, based on the industry’s track record, that it can or will self-police its way to salvation. More than 100 years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a novel set in Chicago’s meatpacking district. Because it focused on the working and living conditions endured by meat-packers and their families, Sinclair was surprised when the public reaction was revulsion at the meat itself, rather than at the way the workers were treated. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and I hit it in the stomach,” he said.
The Jungle led to two important pieces of food-safety legislation: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the latter establishing what became the Food and Drug Administration. Thanks to these laws, many advances have been made in all aspects of the meat industry. Yet in other ways, little has changed. To this day, worker safety and slaughterhouse conditions remain contentious issues. Meat safety is still very much an issue, and animal-rights activists have recently pushed another dimension to the slaughterhouse debate—the notion that the feelings of the animals need be considered.
This isn’t to say that animal-rights activists invented the concept of respect for animals. Even Sinclair, while it wasn’t his priority, took some time to commiserate with doomed pigs: “And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests—and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without a pretense of apology, without the homage of a tear.”
The ceremony that Sinclair missed is no frivolous thing. Some acknowledgement of the lives and deaths of the animals we eat seems appropriate. I’m not suggesting that slaughterhouses conduct a sweat-lodge ceremony every time an animal dies. But the industry as a whole, somehow, should acknowledge the need, felt by many, to atone for this tragedy at the foundation of eating meat. The industry also needs to acknowledge that meat-processing is a topic that people don’t want to have hidden anymore. For a variety of reasons—ethical, environmental and health-related—a growing segment of the population wants to pull back the shrink wrap and see what’s behind the meat inside.
So why not invite the public to tour slaughterhouses? It would demonstrate that the industry hears the concerns of consumers and is eager to show it has nothing to hide. Letting people see what goes on would be an important step in winning back their trust.
It wouldn’t be an easy adjustment, given that much of what the public is offended by is perfectly legal. But while slaughterhouses can’t change the fact that animals are killed, they can change the environment in which they are dispatched. This idea, of pulling back the shrink wrap, just might be on the right side of history. Shining a light in these historically dark places could improve the well-being of the slaughterhouse workers as well as that of the animals. And if the changes that result also improve the quality of meat, then meat-eaters will have some animal-rights activists to thank.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in New Mexico.