The Green Plate: Animals in Glass Houses Don’t Need Video Exposés

ColumnReintegrating food production into our communities will increase transparency in the food system.

Unless you buy eggs from cage-free or pastured hens, your daily over-easy likely came from a bird whose entire life was passed in a 16-inch wide cage with four or five others.

While the hen struggled to push those thin-shelled, pale-yolked eggs from her poor, sick body, excrement rained down on her from the cages above. Perhaps she shared the tiny space with other birds so ill they were dying, or already dead. Such conditions are living hell for the chickens, and they aren’t so good for people, either. Last year’s widespread salmonella-induced egg recall proved it.

Yet if factory farmers and the politicians who pander to them get their way, the only mechanism available for exposing abuse of animals and dangerously filthy conditions could soon be a crime. The creation, possession, or distribution of investigative videos like this one taken by an undercover employee in an egg production facility in California would be punishable by law.

According to the New York Times, a bill now before the Iowa legislature would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.” Other states are considering similar legislation.

The implications for journalism, animal welfare and human health are serious. The reason we need secret videos and photographs to expose farm animal abuses and food safety violations is because agricultural facilities are no longer a part of our communities. They are hidden away in sparsely populated areas far from city and suburban centers. They are massive in scale, their corporate owners wield considerable political power, and they are accountable to no one. If you are unlucky enough to live near a factory farm, you only need your nose to know.

Take the hog farms in North Carolina as an example. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been collecting stories from North Carolina residents who live near the state’s giant hog operations. The stench and pollution permeates their walls and clothing, makes their children sick, and prevents them from going outside. Such a system is profitable for producers, but comes at a high cost for our human society, and the animals that are the unwilling participants in the system.

I have a dream that in my lifetime we find a way to reintegrate food production of all types back into our communities. If farms, animal operations, slaughterhouses, and other facilities that process food were smaller in size and located in the regions they serve, the resulting transparency would go a long way toward decreasing animal cruelty and increasing food safety. When workers, owners, farmers, animals, and consumers are all part of the same community, there will be accountability to the community that doesn’t exist in the global marketplace, and we won’t need secret videos.

Until we can elect politicians and policy makers who will work toward a food system that’s fair to both animals and people, it’s up to us as consumers. The next time you’re shopping for food, think about what kind of system you want to support with your dollars.

Image: Emrank via Flickr

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, exploring the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Alice Popkorn

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.