It was early in the spring three years ago that a group calling themselves Mercy For Animals (MFA) released the infamous E6 video. An undercover operative had taped some horrendous animal abuse and what we saw was nauseating. It was an event that first brought MFA's top gun, Nathan Runkle, to my attention. I interviewed him for Cattlenetwork (Click here to read that interview),
I thought that our paths would never cross again. The only reason would be another video so disturbing that I would be forced to reach out to him. It was something I hoped would never happen, something that I thought this industry would do everything to prevent.
Then it happened. A few weeks ago, MFA released the Andrus Dairy video. I steeled myself and watched it. I took a couple of Excedrin Extra Strength for Migraine tabs and contacted Runkle.
Maybe, I hoped, Andrus was just an anomaly – just one business that had not been paying attention and let things get out of hand. I checked MFA's web site and that pipe dream was quickly extinguished. There were nine exposes not including Andrus so far this year, an average of one a month. And before you start to attack those crazed animal rights groups like PETA, MFA is not one of them. No Ingrid Newkirkian "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" nonsense, just a sense of urgency to uncover animal abuse.
Temple Grandin has reviewed several of their undercover videos and agrees with them; they show plain and simple, no excuses abuse. Grandin and MFA are also on the same page when it comes to using constant live-feed video cameras in animal handling facilities to help catch abuse in its very early stages before it becomes endemic and an accepted practice.
Here is one unavoidable truth and you can blame it on the internet if you have to find a reason. All business practices are now unavoidably transparent, it doesn't matter if your business is agriculture, food processing, automobiles, banking or fishing off the coast of Alaska. Those practices that animal ag people might think nothing about, like tail docking, should be carefully examined. As far as the general public is concerned, if it looks brutal, it is brutal.
And if it's deemed brutal, they won't like it and they will make equally brutal market place decisions. Real abuse as well as misunderstood animal handling that merely looks abusive are things that groups like MFA are highlighting. Ignoring those practices or dismissing legitimate animal welfare groups as know nothing do-gooders exacerbates the problem.
I posed six questions to Runkle and here are his answers, whole and unedited.
Let's talk about the actions MFA has taken so far this year. Your web site lists nine undercover investigations that resulted in an expose of some kind. Would you compare and contrast those actions with what's happened in previous years? Not listed was the most recent action where workers at the Andrus Dairy near Birnamwood, Wis., were captured on video kicking and punching cows. Would you detail their offenses?
Mercy For Animals has conducted dozens of undercover investigations at farms and slaughterhouses across the country and every time we have documented abuses that shock and horrify most people. In many cases we have uncovered acts of criminal animal cruelty and neglect and have worked with law enforcement to bring animal abusers to justice.
In every case, we have exposed industry practices that, while technically legal, are inherently cruel and cause immense suffering. For example, if someone were to use pruning shears to hack off the tail of a single dog or cat without painkillers they would be thrown in jail. At Andrus Dairy, mutilating countless cows this way is considered standard practice.
At Andrus Dairy, and every other dairy farm we’ve investigated, we also documented workers viciously kicking, punching, and beating cows, dragging downed cows by their necks, and leaving sick or injured animals to suffer with open wounds, infections, and serious injuries without proper veterinary care.
According to a story in Food Safety News, animal handling expert Temple Grandin said, “The handling of dairy cows in this video is not acceptable. Employees must be trained to never kick or hit a cow’s udder or face. High pressure water shot in the eye is abusive.” Yet Scott E. Niemi, assistant district attorney for Shawano-Menominee Counties, has just issued a statement saying he will refuse to prosecute the employees. Under the law, was his decision justified?
It is disappointing that law enforcement is turning a blind eye to the clear acts of criminal animal abuse we documented at Andrus Dairy. This highlights the need to strengthen laws to protect animals on farms and at slaughterhouses, and to increase oversight to prevent needless cruelty and violence. If it weren’t for undercover investigators, there would be no effective watchdogs looking out for the welfare of animals at these facilities.
Responding to queries from USA Today, Alan Andrus, owner of the farm, emailed that "We were shocked to see some of our employees not following appropriate animal-handling practices on our farm. No one in our family was aware of such conduct occurring on our farm." Similar responses have come from people with oversight responsibility at other facilities faced with videotaped exposure. Are those responses valid and what would you suggest be done by animal handling sites that might have a similar problem?
The investigator reported abuse to Alan Andrus as well as his wife, daughter, and the farm supervisor. In fact, the supervisor instructed workers to hurt the animals in order to move them faster. When no corrective actions were taken, MFA alerted law enforcement to the rampant and ongoing animal abuse we uncovered at the facility. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the owners to ensure animals are not being punched, beaten, or otherwise abused. Mercy For Animals has also been calling on leaders in the animal agricultural industry to install cameras that live stream to the internet in order to deter abuse.
Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, was horrified by the video and said she knows of no dairy producer who would treat animals that way. Your group, however, claims the abuse is endemic. Is part of the problem a difference in what might be acceptable but misunderstood practices in the dairy industry vs what MFA sees as acceptable?
The dairy industry is profit-driven. Consequently, it works to maximize profits and minimize costs, and this almost always comes at the expense of animal welfare. It is not surprising that a representative for a dairy marketing firm would try to deflect criticism to protect industry profits. The dozens of undercover investigations exposing pervasive animal abuse on farms and at slaughterhouses indicate an endemic problem. If the industry truly cares about animal welfare, it should be helping to strengthen laws and oversight to protect animals.
Mayer was also concerned about whether scenes were taken out of context and how someone could film the abuse without immediately intervening. A point she was trying to make and one that many people in animal agriculture agree with is animal abuse should be called out and stopped immediately. Nick Cooney, your director of education said the undercover worker "performed all of the duties required for the job and tried not to engage in any of the abuse. The investigator did what he could not to arouse suspicion of fellow workers." Did he, in fact, engage in any abuse in carrying out his undercover work? And the video covered approximately a month of abuse. Was the abuse chronic or occasional and why did it take that long to come forward?
The investigator reported abuse to his supervisor and the owner on numerous occasions. It is the responsibility of the owner and manager to take immediate corrective actions to prevent egregious animal abuse. Not only did the investigator not participate in abuse; he was scolded by his supervisor for not being aggressive enough with the cows. When it became clear that there was a culture of cruelty and violence that management was aware of, and even participated in, we quickly went to law enforcement. If it weren’t for the brave investigator, none of these abuses would have been exposed.
Thousands of people in animal agriculture read Cattlenetwork. What would you like to say to them?
Mercy For Animals has a strong track record for working with industry leaders and retailers, including Nestlé — the largest food company in the world — to improve animal welfare. When companies like Tyson Foods encourage their contract farms to do away with many of the worst forms of institutionalized animal abuse, we are quick to praise them. We are eager to establish positive working relationships with people in the food industry who take animal welfare seriously, but are wary of those who pretend that problems don’t exist or point fingers at everyone but themselves.
Finally, I encourage your readers to become true champions for animal welfare by advocating for a move away from inherently cruel gestation crates, battery cages, veal crates, and mutilations without painkillers - tail docking, castration, etc. These practices are not only inhumane; they are out of step with the views and values of the growing majority of American consumers.
The unfortunate and misguided PR strategy of “shooting the messenger” by deflecting blame, promoting ag-gag legislation, and defending patently cruel practices is counterproductive and only harms the agricultural industry’s reputation with the public. If you want to be a leader, you must lead. And there are many changes that are desperately needed within animal agriculture. The industry can either champion those changes, or be dragged into them. The choice is yours.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.