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At the Cost of an Animal


Matthew (@MatthewGLiebman) is Chair of the Justice for Animals Program and Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law

This post is part of our symposium on the Law and Political Economy of Meat.

A growing movement is challenging our collective failure to meet our ethical obligations to farmed animals, who are sentenced to what Jacques Derrida called “an artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous, outside of every supposed norm of a life proper to animals.” This movement has used a politics of visibility to expose the treatment of animals who are usually hidden from sight. In response, the animal agriculture industry has pushed to criminalize these exposés with the aim of preserving corporate narratives of humane farming. This essay describes the ongoing battle between corporate control of the food system and the movement to mobilize political responses to human and nonhuman exploitation.

To put this struggle into context, we might go back to the early 20th century, when elements of neoliberal automation and efficiency were conceived amidst the violence of the slaughterhouse. Henry Ford and his team gleaned the idea for the assembly line “from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef.” A visit by Ford engineer William “Pa” Klann to the Swift & Company slaughterhouse in Chicago, where workers methodically dismembered animals one body part at a time, inspired Ford to recreate this “disassembly line” in reverse. The literal reduction of the nonhuman body to its constituent parts presaged a metaphorically similar process for workers, in which their productive forces are micromanaged, surveilled, regulated, and overdetermined in the service of efficiency.

Around the same time, Upton Sinclair and the progressive movement were using these same industrial slaughterhouses to reveal the darker aspects of unfettered industrialization. After spending seven weeks in “Packingtown,” Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which exposed the ruthless exploitation of animals and workers in the Chicago stockyards. Sinclair describes a pig slaughterhouse as “so very businesslike” — “porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics.” The impersonal and mechanical process that inspired Klann horrified Sinclair, who decried the practice of butchering animals “without a pretense of apology, without the homage of a tear.”

Sinclair’s expose, which famously “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident . . . hit it in the stomach,” helped spur landmark progressive legislation, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. By most metrics, though, things have only gotten worse for farmed animals since The Jungle was published: more animals suffer more severe abuses under more inhumane conditions than ever before. True, slaughterhouses are now at least regulated, but legislative loopholes, regulatory rollbacks, under-enforcement, and the inherent nature of slaughter all ensure that extreme violence continues. And the farms on which animals are raised have undergone a quantum shift in their degree of industrialization, integration, and concentration. As Claire Jean Kim observes, “In its ruthless single-mindedness, the neoliberal instrumentalization of animal bodies has reached the level of science fiction.”

In light of this intensifying war against animals, Sinclair’s legacy as a journalist and activist is perhaps more important than the legislation he spurred.

Today, Sinclair’s journalistic heirs go undercover at factory farms and slaughterhouses across the country to pull back the curtain on a vast, seething undercurrent of suffering that undergirds the daily practices of most Americans.

Undercover investigations of the animal agriculture industry have proliferated in recent years. More than 100 separate exposés have revealed extreme animal suffering against a filthy, industrial backdrop. A recent undercover investigation by Animal Outlook at a California dairy farm showed the traumatization of baby calves wrenched from their mothers, the neglect of cows denied veterinary care and left for dead, and the physical abuse of animals who were beaten and kicked. Similar investigations have shown hens crammed into small wire cages, pigs confined in barren metal stalls, sheep aggressively sheered of their wool, routine mutilations of animals’ bodies performed without anesthesia, the slaughter of fully conscious animals, the neglect of sick and injured animals, and other cruelties.

The public responses to these investigations have mobilized important democratic reforms, including state laws banning some of the worst forms of intensive confinement and regulations prohibiting the slaughter of cows too sick to walk to their own deaths. Investigations have instigated consumer boycotts, contract cancellations, and the creation of new corporate responsibility policies (for what little those are worth). But most importantly, these investigations have enabled public conversations about our ethical responsibilities to animals by documenting the gory ways we fall short.

Not surprisingly, the animal agriculture industry would prefer to propagate the prevailing cultural myths we tell ourselves about farming – that it’s a family affair set against a pastoral backdrop with salt-of-the-earth farmers caring individually for the animals whom they love up until the moment of painless slaughter. Undercover investigations expose the far uglier reality. In an effort to suppress these countervailing narratives, the industry has pushed for “Ag-Gag” laws, which criminalize the creation of undercover videos. 

Animal agriculture has enormous political power, which the industry uses to “manufacture consent” for its abuse, as Núria Almiron observes. The industry has found willing legislators to introduce Ag-Gag bills in more than 30 states, and it has succeeded in passing them in 10 states – Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa (twice), Utah, Missouri, Idaho, Wyoming, North Carolina, and Arkansas. These laws criminalize (or create civil liability for) undercover investigations by prohibiting (1) recording agricultural operations without the facility owner’s permission, (2) gaining access to a facility by misrepresentation, such as by lying on an employment application, or (3) failing to disclose one’s identity as an undercover investigator to law enforcement and turn over footage within 24 hours.

Those who supported these laws have clearly articulated their motivation to protect corporate agribusiness from the democratic protest movement that has risen up against it. Legislative sponsors of Ag-Gag laws maligned activists as “vigilantes,” “terrorists,” “extremists,” and “jackwagons.” One industry lobbyist in Idaho complained about PETA “stand[ing] up on a soapbox”— the classic metonym of political speechmaking — to “broadcast” the results of its investigations. An Idaho representative supported the legislation precisely because an activist group, Mercy for Animals, used its investigation to mobilize politically: “By releasing the footage to the Internet, with petitions calling for a boycott of products of any company that bought meat or milk from Bettencourt Dairy, the organizations involved then crossed the ethical line for me.” The sponsor of Utah’s law, a farmer himself, complained that undercover investigations are used “for the advancement of animal rights nationally, which, in our industry, we find egregious.”

Interestingly, lawmakers seem to have abandoned the purported neoliberal commitment to the free choice of individual consumers, presumably because such transparency coincides with the mobilizing strategy of a liberatory political movement. (It is worth noting that some free-market advocates have opposed Ag-Gag laws, precisely because of the laws’ interference with individual consumer choice. Although their opposition to these laws is welcome, their framing of animal liberation as a matter of individuals’ personal choices is misguided.)

An aggressive litigation campaign to challenge the constitutionality of Ag-Gag laws, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and a coalition of animal welfare, civil liberties, food safety, environmental, and workers’ rights groups, has thus far succeeded. Courts have struck down Ag-Gag laws (in whole or in part) for violating the free speech clause of the First Amendment in Utah, Idaho, Iowa, Wyoming, and North Carolina.

These courts have found Ag-Gag laws to infringe upon protected speech. The courts have typically found these restraints on speech to be content-based, because one must look to the content of the speech to determine (a) whether the video depicts a prohibited subject (agricultural operations), or (b) whether a statement made to gain access is true or false. As content-based restraints on speech, the Ag-Gag laws must survive strict scrutiny, which they cannot do. Although the government has a compelling interest in protecting the private property rights of agricultural corporations, the Ag-Gag laws fail strict scrutiny because they are not narrowly tailored to that interest. If the states were genuinely concerned with protecting property, they could (and do) enact statutes of general applicability, such as trespass laws, that only incidentally burden speech. The only true explanation for the Ag-Gag laws is a desire to stifle speech in service of industry, or as the District Court of Utah put it, “What the Act seems perfectly tailored toward is preventing undercover investigators from exposing abuses at agricultural facilities.”

The victories haven’t been unvarnished: although the Ninth Circuit struck down Idaho’s videography ban, it upheld the portion of the law that prohibits gaining employment through misrepresentation if the investigator intends to cause economic harm to the facility – which of course is the natural consequence of negative publicity. The challenge to Arkansas’s law was dismissed on standing grounds, which the plaintiffs have appealed. The Eighth Circuit recently heard oral arguments on whether to reinstate Iowa’s Ag-Gag law, which was enjoined by the district court for violating the First Amendment. And how the current Supreme Court will view this issue if it comes before it remains to be seen. Although the Court has been bullish on giving force to the First Amendment to protect corporate interests, it may not be so protective when the robust exercise of critical speech collides with ostensible private property rights and foments grassroots mobilization against corporate power and anthropocentric exploitation. Regardless of the outcome of this constitutional litigation, the struggle over transparency in animal agriculture will continue. Sinclair described what he witnessed at the Chicago slaughterhouses as “like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.” Today, the animal agriculture industry – working with its legislative enablers – continues to bury its exploitation out of sight and memory, relying on the suppression of speech, neoliberal deregulation, government subsidies, regulatory capture, misleading advertising, and exemptions from animal cruelty and environmental laws. Against this seemingly hopeless legal backdrop, mobilizing a popular movement that refuses participation in this system while building cross-movement alliances is necessary to fighting the significant threat that animal agriculture poses to human and nonhuman life.

Photo Credit: Roee Shpernik, CC BY-SA 4.0,