A new ad from the Humane Society of the United States is running on TV these days and it’s a gripper. Brief, slow-motion videos of cats and dogs, some of them bearing harsh scars and all of them wearing the most pitiful expressions imaginable, are captioned with heartbreaking titles such as, “What did I do wrong?,” “Why did they hurt me?,” “Why did they abandon me?” and “Will I die today?” I confess it gets to me every time I see it, as it should – both of my dogs as well as the housecat are rescues from shelters, and I cannot envision my life without these wonderful animals nor can I fathom the world holding together without their sweetness in it.
The ad also includes a very quick snippet of the infamous video an HSUS representative shot surreptitiously at the Hallmark-Westland beef plant in California in 2007, and I don’t have to describe for you the cruelty the clip shows; you already know. The video zoomed around the globe almost the instant it first appeared on the Internet, and in due course the largest beef recall in U.S. history as well as the demise of Hallmark-Westland resulted. Few executives in the industry I talked to as the terrible drama unfolded believed the company shouldn’t be punished for the abuse its employees were found guilty of, but there was also a chorus of claims that Hallmark-Westland didn’t represent what happens at the vast majority of meat plants.
It didn’t? Does the public really believe that?
This time later, with at least a snip of the video still bringing attention and donations to HSUS, the question for the industry becomes how to best respond to such a blatantly emotional appeal. (HSUS has created a special website as part of the ad campaign and its name, www.SaveAnimalsNow.org, is both descriptive and effective.) Describing how meat and poultry derived from animals and birds provide efficiently nutritious food for literally billions of people is a good argument, but it’s not an emotional one. Showing the economic benefits the meat and poultry industry directly brings to hundreds of thousands of people and just as many families and to hundreds of communities is also a good argument, yet again: not emotional.
No, the best response is for the industry to ensure there is no animal cruelty or abuse in the industry at all – none, zero, zilch. How to accomplish this? With still stricter animal-handling guidelines (and let’s stop calling them “guidelines,” by the way; make them rules), with evermore vigilant inspections and audits, and with total transparency. I believe the industry has the capability of accomplishing all of this on its own; more management by the government isn’t necessary. The industry has come a long, long ways over the past 20 years in terms of animal welfare, but there’s still a distance to go. We must not tire before the last milestones are reached.
Let’s make this the starting point: Any industry employee caught abusing animals should be prosecuted by his or her employer to the full extent of the law. Zero tolerance of cruelty and abuse must be the industry’s baseline when it comes to our livestock.
As for transparency, the old argument that “people just don’t understand” what happens at a meat plant has become ineffective. People may not want to revel in the gory details – but they want to know, and since consumers comprise the foundation of the industry, they have a right to know. Dr. Temple Grandin has argued for public cameras to be placed inside packinghouses and I fully agree with this proposal. Keeping the shroud of secrecy over our plants is like keeping secrets in a marriage: if you won’t tell your wife, husband or partner what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it. And while it may seem self-serving of me to tell the industry to stop keeping out reporters, the record is clear that the industry ignores media interest at its own peril.
Frankly, there’s no response the industry can give that’s as emotionally effective as a sad puppy’s face. Believe me, my dogs could tell you that. But this must not prevent the industry from being forthright, transparent and absolutely cruelty-free.
Here’s hoping 2010 brings not a single animal-abuse scandal to the industry no matter who’s snooping for one. That would be both a step and an accomplishment.