by Rebecca Roache (Oxford University)
Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.
The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:
They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Those who flout such legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.
The New York Times mentions several reasons why meat producers object to the practice of covert filming. First, the disturbing treatment of animals depicted in the videos may actually represent ‘best practice’, and therefore should not count as mistreatment at all. Second, meat producers suspect that the true motivation in producing the videos is not to protect animals, but to persuade people not to eat meat.1Third, they complain that the videos are made available online before the company has had an opportunity to address the abusive behaviour of its employees.
This legislation is, understandably, highly controversial. Imagine if similar legislation were proposed to restrict the activities of undercover police officers, requiring them to declare their links to the police force whenever they attempted to obtain undercover employment, and to reveal any evidence gained almost immediately, thus curtailing their ability to build a case over time. Such legislation would effectively put an end to undercover police operations, and we could expect many of the worst sort of criminals to go unpunished as a result.
There are at least two important differences between these two cases, however. First, workers for animal charities are not police officers. I shall set this consideration aside, however, since it is question-begging: arguably, animal charities fulfil the sort of protective role for animals that ought to be fulfilled by public authorities, and such charities are entitled to step in to protect animals given the shortcomings in this area by those authorities. Second, unlike the police, animal charities often publicise their evidence online before it has been evaluated by the usual legal processes, and before the animal abusers or their employers have had a chance to put their case; as a result, these charities arguably act unfairly.
There is a promising way to address the shortcomings both in the practice of covertly filming animal abuse, and in the response to this practice by some US states. Animal Aid has made an absolutely compelling case for the compulsory installation of CCTV in all British slaughterhouses. (Similar campaigns are taking place in other countries, including Australia.) The same case also supports compulsory installation of CCTV in other industrial environments in which animals are at risk of mistreatment. Were this to happen, and were the relevant authorities appropriately vigilant in reviewing the resulting footage, we could hope that animal abuse would be exposed and addressed in a way that does not attract the charge of unfairness levelled at the practice of covert filming. Employers would be responsible for continuously monitoring the behaviour of their staff captured on CCTV, thus avoiding being caught ‘on the back foot’ when abusive behaviour in their company is publicised before they have been given the chance to respond. We might also hope that the mere presence of CCTV would encourage those who earn a living by killing animals—a class of people whom one would naturally expect to be less concerned about animal welfare than the average person—to regulate their otherwise disgusting and depraved behaviour. And, the vets and public bodies responsible for monitoring and enforcing animal welfare regulation in slaughterhouses and the like would be able to do so withoutthe intimidation and bullying that currently inhibits their ability to carry out their work effectively. The CCTV method would, then, facilitate the prevention and policing of animal welfare in a fairer and more effective manner than the method of covert filming.
The CCTV method would also address concerns relating to misrepresentation of those companies and industries captured in covertly filmed footage. To recall, representatives of the meat industry complain that ‘best practice’ is unfairly presented to the public as abuse. However, if the activities of animal workers were routinely monitored via CCTV, we could expect the practice of publicising undercover footage of these activities online to fall off. That is, if animal welfare were appropriately monitored in industrial environments, animal charities would not be motivated to infiltrate these environments in order to expose their lax welfare standards. We could therefore expect public visibility of these environments to reduce, and with it the opportunities for misrepresentation.
You can support the campaign for compulsory CCTV in British slaughterhouses here.
1 I will address this complaint separately from the main text, since it is a confusing diversion. Copious evidence gathered by animal charities shows that animal abuse is ubiquitous in the meat industry. An effective way of helping to stop this abuse is to avoid supporting the meat industry; that is, by not eating meat. The suggestion that the desire to persuade people not to eat meat is separable from the desire to protect animals is, then, nonsensical.
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