In February, Amy Meyer became the first person charged under a so-called ag-gag law. Six states currently have such laws, also called "Farm Protection" laws, which aim to stop video recording at slaughterhouses. The bills are largely industry-funded, and based on a template drawn up by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Another eight states have similar legislation in the works. The effort to clamp down on slaughterhouse recording has never been stronger or more organized, but cracks are appearing. Two such bills, in California and Indiana, recently failed. And the historic prosecution of Meyer failed as well, barely a week after it began.
Police in Draper, Utah, had responded to Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Company, where Meyer was using a cellphone to video the goings-on. No arrest was made, and police noted that Meyer was recording the view from a public street. Meyer's attorney told the Salt Lake Tribune she was "surprised" a few days later when she learned charges were pressed. In April the prosecution began. At a plea hearing, she rejected a deal. A week later charges were dropped.
The failed prosecution of Meyer, like the shelving of ag-gag bills in California and Indiana, is indicative of the uphill battle the meat industry faces. Footage of sick or injured cows being dragged to slaughter, animal cruelty and other unsafe and illegal activities are just the tip of a meat industry PR problem that's rooted in the inescapable fact that killing animals for food, under any circumstance, is disturbing to many people.
Most people who eat meat do so in spite of the uncomfortable realities, and probably, at some level, regret that an animal had to die. But evidently the hunger for meat overpowers any remorse the meat eaters might feel.
Some kinds of meat, like wild game and ethically farmed livestock, offers meat eaters a chance to rationalize that at least the animals lived happy lives. But with industrially produced meat, we know it's ugly. And thanks to videos like those that ag-gag laws seek to ban, we know in great detail how just how very ugly it can be.
The scary part for the meat industry is that even videos in which no laws are broken are stirring anti-meat sentiment. For many people, even business as usual in the slaughterhouse is unpalatable.
The cat is out of the bag; we can't forget what we have seen. Nor are we inclined, based on the industry's track record, to believe it can or will self-police its way to salvation. It's been more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a novel set in Chicago's meatpacking district.
The Jungle focused on the working and living conditions endured by meatpackers and their families, and Sinclair was surprised when the public reaction was revulsion at the meat. Years later he famously said, "I aimed at the public's heart and I hit it in the stomach."
While Sinclair's aspirations for effecting social change went unfulfilled, the book led to two important pieces of food safety legislation: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the latter establishing what became the Food and Drug Administration.
Thanks to these laws, there have been many advances in all aspects of the meat industry, but it's nonetheless noteworthy how many ways in which little has changed. To this day, worker safety and slaughterhouse conditions remain contentious issues. Meat safety is still very much an issue. And animal-rights activists have introduced another dimension to the slaughterhouse debate: that the feelings of animals need be considered.
Some acknowledgement of the lives and deaths of the animals we eat does seem appropriate. I'm not suggesting that slaughterhouses conduct a sweat lodge ceremony every time an animal dies. But the industry as a whole, somehow, should acknowledge the need, felt by many, to atone for the tragedy at the foundation of eating meat. The industry also needs to acknowledge that meat processing is a topic people don't want hidden anymore. For reasons ethical, environmental and health-related, a growing segment of the population wants to pull back the shrink wrap and see what's behind the meat inside.
Perhaps the smart thing for the meat industry to do is precisely the opposite of pushing ag-gag legislation, and let people see inside. If the public were allowed to tour slaughterhouses, it would demonstrate that industry hears the concerns and wants to show it has nothing to hide. Letting people see would be an important step in winning back their trust.
It wouldn't be an easy adjustment, given that much of what the public is offended by is perfectly legal. In this way, industry does have something to hide. And this is where the tragedy of meat is working against the meat industry. This is why this activity has always been done behind closed doors. But although the slaughterhouses can't change the fact that animals are killed, they can change the environment in which they are dispatched.
Whatever changes that might result from increasing transparency will probably not be easy. And they might not be cheap. But unlike how ag-gags are shaping up to be, pulling back the shrink wrap might be on the right side of history. Shining a light in this historically dark place could improve the well-being of the slaughterhouse workers as well as the animals. And if the changes that result improve the quality of meat, then meat eaters will have some animal rights activists to thank.