I'm going to apologize right now if you're eating breakfast, particularly if it includes a nice bit of bacon and a lovely runny egg. Look away now, because this column is about the crappy things we do to animals in our pursuit of a cheap breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or one of the 60 snacks that seem to fall between.
I'm a meat eater, an omnivore, a slurper of chicken soup and a cruncher of bacon, but sometimes I wonder how I can continue when faced with the reality of animals' largely miserable journey from feedlot to plate. Like many people, I feel a momentary revulsion whenever I see one of those undercover videos of chicks being thrown live into grinders, pigs unable to turn in their crates and cows beaten with iron bars. Then, a day later, I'm glad I have enough loose change in my wallet to buy a club sandwich.
Those videos, which tell the story of the real costs associated with cheap, factory-farmed food, are painful to watch. They are shaming. And, for that reason, they are also under threat in the United States, where so-called "ag-gag" laws punish anyone who goes undercover at a farm or processing plant to take surreptitious video (the term "ag-gag" was coined by The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.)
Seven states in the U.S. have these laws, which punish whistle-blowers who either try to expose cruel practices, or who falsify their applications to get jobs in the agriculture industry (which is how activists capture their evidence). Nearly 20 other states have tried to pass similar legislation.
You might have seen some of the video that these laws would block, such as the footage of cows being rammed with a forklift, shot secretly by the U.S. Humane Society in 2007. That particular exposé of a California slaughterhouse and its cruel, unhealthy practices led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
In Idaho and Utah, a disparate group – including animal-rights and First Amendment activists, alongside food-safety groups and unions – have launched challenges to the ag-gag laws in federal courts. In Washington, investigative journalist Will Potter has a successful Kickstarter campaign called "Drone on the Farm" to subvert ag-gag laws by using airborne cameras to photograph factories from above.
But their opponents, who raise the meat and bring it to market, have deep pockets, and rely on the public's desire for cheap chicken to outweigh its passing disgust. (In both Canada and the U.S., consumption of red meat has fallen over the past three decades, but demand for poultry has soared, if you'll pardon a bad pun.)
As the Guardian newspaper wrote in recent undercover exposé of vile conditions in U.K. chicken-processing plants, where two-thirds of fresh chicken is infected with the potentially toxic campylobacter bacteria, "poultry firms and retailers are locked in to an economic structure of their own making in their race to produce the cheapest possible chicken." But who demands the cut-rate nugget and the fire-sale fajita? That would be us, the consumers.
We may not have ag-gag laws in Canada, but we still rely on the undercover surveillance of activist groups like Mercy for Animals to expose the dirty links in our food chain. In two recent high-profile cases, Mercy for Animals revealed alleged abuses (and got action) that would otherwise have been overlooked. Its undercover investigators released a video showing the suffering of live turkeys at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, which led to 11 charges of animal cruelty being laid against the company.
At Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the country's largest dairy producer, Mercy for Animals captured footage of cows being beaten and abused with farm machinery by young employees who whooped with glee. The question "who tortures cows for fun" is not one I am equipped to address, but at least when I watched the footage I was pretty sure I could identify the dumb animals in the frame. Those workers were fired, and the company's milk temporarily boycotted. Once again, public outrage soon faded.
I'm sure Mercy for Animals would like us all to turn vegan so they could hang up their cameras, but this is not likely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, we could at least acknowledge the price we pay for convenience, and cost-saving, and have the guts to look it in the eye.