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If someone is caught beating a dog with a crowbar, they’d likely be arrested for animal cruelty. If a factory scalds thousands of chickens alive, they are lauded as a successful industrialist turning big profits.
Perdue Farms, a multi-billion dollar factory farm in America, was found grabbing chickens ready for slaughter by the legs, violently throwing them in crates, and stomping on their heads until their death. Many of the birds suffer broken legs and other injuries as revealed in an undercover video by the animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals (MFA).
Working incognito as employees of these abusive facilities, MFA investigators strapped with cameras documented the disturbing treatment of the chickens and plastered the video on their website. Perdue Farm workers were subsequently arrested and charged with four felony counts of cruelty to animals.
To convict the perpetrators of the blatant abuse seems like an obvious ethical decision. Yet, MFA investigators face backlash in their campaign to change the industrial standard of treatment for animals.
Matt Rice, the director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, spoke with BTRToday about the stealthy research undertaken by his team at large, name-brand corporations and the federal laws excusing the inhumane handling of animals, especially chickens, throughout farm factories in America.
BTRToday (BTR): How did you first become interested in this line of work?
Matt Rice (MR): I think like most people, I care about animals and I’m opposed to animal abuse. I’d never stand by and let somebody kick a dog. But it wasn’t until I saw undercover investigations about how animals on factory farms are treated that I really got moved to get involved in the animal protection movement and start working with undercover investigators myself to help expose these atrocities, the way that animals are treated on farms today.
The vast majority of these animals are crammed into cages so small they can’t even turn around or lay down comfortably for almost their entire lives. They’re mutilated without pain killers and they’re slaughtered in ways that would be illegal if we were to do it to other types of animals. These are animals that have typically had almost no legal protection at either the federal or the state level, so I decided this is something that needs to be addressed, and I started getting involved in the animal protection movement because of that.
BTR: Some of those videos on the MFA website are horrific accounts of the abuse that are going on in some of these factory farms, for instance, the Perdue Farms. How do you choose which factories to send undercover investigators?
MR: That’s a good question. Actually, our investigations are conducted at random. We simply ask our investigators to apply for jobs at farms and slaughterhouses across the country. They go to work at the first place that hires them, then use hidden cameras to document the conditions they witness while they’re working in these facilities.
Over the last several years, we’ve conducted more than 40 undercover investigations at factory farms across the country and every single time we’ve documented abuses that shock and horrify most Americans. Many of our investigations have resulted in criminal prosecutions and convictions against workers and owners of these facilities who are abusing animals in ways that wouldn’t even violate the few laws that do protect these animals.
BTR: That must be a point of contention there, that the federal rules on humane slaughter apply to cattle, hogs, sheep, but not poultry, even though birds are about 95 percent of the farm animals that we kill each year. So how do you guys wrestle with that? I’m sure these farm factories argue that what they’re doing is legal.
MR: You’re absolutely right, and I think you hit the nail on the head. There are no federal laws that protect animals during their lives on the farm at all, and the one law that protects against slaughter excludes 95 percent of the animals that are killed and raised for food and that’s chickens and turkeys and other birds. Most states have what are called “Common Farming Exemptions,” which means that if the factory farming industry says a practice is okay, like mutilating animals without painkillers or cutting their tails or castrating them without any painkillers, that practice is automatically deemed legal.
But there are some state laws that protect animals from what we call malicious forms of abuse, so workers hitting animals with crowbars or throwing them against the wall to kill them, even the factory farm industry won’t defend as a standard farming practice. We document in almost every single investigation, and those are the things we’re able to get law enforcement to act on and hold these animal abusers accountable. But the vast majority of suffering these animals endure at the hands the factory farming industry is through what are called “Common Farming Practices,” that would be illegal if even one dog or cat were the victim instead of literally billions of chickens and cows and pigs instead.
BTR: So you are able to accuse these facilities for the inhumane animal abuse, but what about the policy changes that need to be made in order for factory farms not to abuse these animals?
MR: The factory farming industry’s one weak point is that they are beholden to their customers. They are in this for money, they want to make as much a profit as they can, and so when their customers who think big grocery chains or retailers like Walmart and McDonalds and Burger King demand that the industry start making changes, the industry listens.
We had a lot of success with working with some of the biggest food producers in the world to help eliminate some of the cruelest factory farming practices. For example, an investigation we did at a Nestle dairy supplier uncovered just really horrific abuse and we met with Nestle executives. Nestle’s the largest food producer in the world, and they decided to implement policies to ban the extreme confinement of animals, help end the needless mutilation of animals without pain killers, stop the rabid growth of chickens that makes them grow so fast they literally become crippled under their own weight, and other important changes that they’re implementing throughout their entire supply chain in 90 countries around the world. That will affect literally hundreds of thousands of farms.
These are big improvements that are happening at the corporate level where these companies don’t want to support animal abuse and are starting to make policies to require the factory farming industry to start changing its cruelest practices.
BTR: When you initially speak with corporations, are they aware of the magnitude of animal abuse that takes place in their facilities?
MR: They were just as shocked as most people are whenever they see these undercover investigations. They’re working in a business, they’re trying to sell a product, they’re not really thinking about where these products are coming from and how the animals are being treated until we start showing this footage to them. And just like everybody else who sees this footage, it makes them sick to their stomach, and they want to take action to stop it. Now that’s not 100 percent across the board, there have been companies that have been resistant and we’ve had to have large petitions on Change.org and on our own website to help get their customers, the people who shop at stores like Walmart, to start demanding that Walmart take action to end some of this abuse in their supply chain. But I’d say the vast majority of corporate executives are very moved by the video footage and want to take action to help stop it.
BTR: We found that one national poll last year found that 81 percent of consumers said that it was important to them that chickens and other animals be humanely raised. How much of these issues rely on these consumers to change their habits and enact more change?
MR: It all comes down to the consumers. These are industries that are really just looking at the bottom line–How are we going to squeeze as much profit out of this as possible? So they’re very susceptible to consumer pressure and whenever they see these petitions out there, whenever they see news coverage painting them in a negative light, they start to get responsive because they don’t want to lose money.
It is very important for people who care about animal welfare, who care about the environment and human health to speak out, to sign these petitions, to get active and start pressuring for change at multiple levels. Working with your representatives in the government to start passing laws and strengthening the current laws to protect animals and the environment. But also talking to the grocery stores you shop at and asking for animal welfare improvements in their product lines as well.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.