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Why slaughterhouses should welcome CCTV

by Rebecca Roache

Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.

The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:

They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.

Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’  legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.

The New York Times mentions several reasons why meat producers object to the practice of covert filming. First, the disturbing treatment of animals depicted in the videos may actually represent ‘best practice’, and therefore does not count as mistreatment at all. Second, meat producers suspect that the true motivation in producing the videos is not to protect animals, but to persuade people not to eat meat.1 Third, they complain that the videos are made available online before the company has had an opportunity to address the abusive behaviour of its employees.

This legislation is, understandably, highly controversial. Imagine if similar legislation were proposed to restrict the activities of undercover police officers, requiring them to declare their links to the police force whenever they attempted to obtain undercover employment, and to reveal any evidence gained almost immediately, thus curtailing their ability to build a case over time. Such legislation would effectively put an end to undercover police operations, and we could expect many of the worst sort of criminals to go unpunished as a result.

There are at least two important differences between these two cases, however. First, workers for animal charities are not police officers; as a result, they lack the authority that police officers often have to intervene in business affairs. I shall set this consideration aside, however, since it is question-begging: arguably, animal charities fulfil the sort of protective role for animals that ought to be fulfilled by public authorities, and such charities are entitled to step in to protect animals given the shortcomings in this area by those authorities. Second, unlike the police, animal charities often publicise their evidence online before it has been evaluated by the usual legal processes, and before the animal abusers or their employers have had a chance to put their case; as a result, these charities arguably act unfairly.

There is a promising way to address the shortcomings both in the practice of covertly filming animal abuse, and in ag-gag legislation. Animal Aid has made an absolutely compelling case for the compulsory installation of CCTV in all British slaughterhouses. (Similar campaigns are taking place in other countries, including Australia.) The same case also supports compulsory installation of CCTV in other industrial environments in which animals are at risk of mistreatment. Were this to happen, and were the relevant authorities appropriately vigilant in reviewing the resulting footage, we could hope that animal abuse would be exposed and addressed in a way that does not attract the charge of unfairness levelled at the practice of covert filming. Employers would be responsible for continuously monitoring the behaviour of their staff captured on  CCTV, thus avoiding being caught ‘on the back foot’ when abusive behaviour in their company is publicised before they have been given the chance to respond. We might also hope that the mere presence of CCTV would encourage those who earn a living by killing animals—a class of people whom one would naturally expect to be less concerned about animal welfare than the average person—to regulate any otherwise disgusting and depraved behaviour. And, the vets and public bodies responsible for monitoring and enforcing animal welfare regulation in slaughterhouses and the like would be able to do so without the intimidation and bullying that currently inhibits their ability to carry out their work effectively. The CCTV method would, then, facilitate the prevention and policing of animal welfare in a fairer and more effective manner than the method of covert filming.

The CCTV method would also address concerns relating to misrepresentation of those companies and industries captured in covertly filmed footage. To recall, representatives of the meat industry complain that ‘best practice’ is unfairly presented to the public as abuse. However, if the activities of animal workers were routinely monitored via CCTV, we could expect the practice of publicising undercover footage of these activities online to fall off. That is, if animal welfare were appropriately monitored in industrial environments, animal charities would be less motivated to infiltrate these environments in order to expose their lax welfare standards. We could therefore expect public visibility of these environments to reduce, and with it the opportunities for misrepresentation.

You can support the campaign for compulsory CCTV in British slaughterhouses here.


1 I will address this complaint separately from the main text, since it is a confusing diversion. Copious evidence gathered by animal charities shows that animal abuse is ubiquitous in the meat industry. An effective way of helping to stop this abuse is to avoid supporting the meat industry; that is, to stop eating meat. The suggestion that the desire to persuade people not to eat meat is separable from the desire to protect animals is, then, nonsensical.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. The case for CCTV does indeed seem very compelling. I wonder, though, if the force of your headline is correct – that slaughterhouses should welcome this regulation. From the link provided, the CCTV would not be made public; instead, it would be viewed by appropriate regulatory bodies. That’s important, imho, to protect the privacy rights of workers. But if the videos are only viewed by regulators, animal rights group will still have strong incentives to publicize secret videos (indeed, it would be made much easier, just by someone on the panels leaking some tapes). There would still be a strong shock factor, and animal rights groups would want to keep the regulators’ feet to the fire (pointing out cases where they *saw* outrageous abuse but failed to do anything). The potential for misrepresentation is still there, as animal rights groups could still only selectively release the worst videos.

    The alternative might be to just make all the CCTV videos viewable on some public site. But as I said, I don’t think this is very respectful of the privacy rights of the workers. You might not have much sympathy for their interests or rights, given their complicity in the cruel practices, but I think it’s those who own and operate the factory farms (rather than those who directly handle the animals) who really bear primary responsibility, and in most cases they wouldn’t appear on CCTV.

    Also, there is I think a bigger reason that factory owners will object to the videos than misrepresentation, time to response, and motive. Meat producers will typically reject the ethical objections to factory farming. Moreover, they may argue that depictions of practices unfairly manipulate our disgust emotions into finding fault where there is none. Compare: an anti-homosexuality activist might press the case against gays by presenting videos of gay sex that many will find disgusting. (I’m actually surprised this isn’t a more common tactic) Better yet, compare the very real tactics of anti-abortion activists and pictures of fetuses. Maybe we don’t want to go so far as to say the latter tactics should be illegal, but there’s arguably something manipulative and problematic about that form of persuasion. You might just argue that the anti-gay and anti-abortion activists are morally mistaken, which makes those practices ignominious, but animal rights activists are correct so the tactics are warranted. However, factory farmers could make a strong case that the issues should be decided on more basis than our gut reactions to videos. Universal accessibility of the practices, then, would only exacerbate (rather than mitigate) the public’s allegedly-mistaken reaction to these sorts of videos.

    1. Thanks Owen.

      Regarding your point that implementing CCTV may not rule out misrepresentative videos being released by animal welfare charities: I agree. But I think we could expect this practice to be significantly reduced. We currently have a situation in which legal requirements in slaughterhouses are not being enforced at all: Animal Aid reports cases of illegal abuse in every (randomly chosen) slaughterhouse they investigated, and the government inspectors who arrive to review and enforce legal requirements are unable to carry out their work because of intimidation by the slaughterers. There is therefore great motivation for animal charities to expose what goes on in slaughterhouses in order to attempt to enforce the legally required welfare practices via the avenue of publicly shaming the companies in question (often resulting in their high-profile customers, such as supermarkets, cutting ties with them or applying pressure to improve standards) or taking them to court. If every slaughterhouse had CCTV, which was regularly reviewed by managers of the company and by government officials responsible for enforcing legislation, I think the motivation for exposing slaughterhouse activity would be reduced. Besides, as I say in my blog, we could expect (or at least hope) that the presence of CCTV would have the effect of discouraging illegally abusive behaviour.

      There are a couple of other things to say about this. First, even if CCTV footage was leaked, this would presumably not happen before slaughterhouse owners had had an opportunity to review it. If the footage depicts illegal acts of abuse, the slaughterhouse owners can respond by describing the measures they have taken as a result (unless they hadn’t noticed it, in which case they are not doing their jobs properly). If the footage simply depicts ‘best practice’, they can say so. You mention the possibility (if I understand you correctly) that animal charities could choose to publicise the most shocking ‘best practice’ (i.e. perfectly legal) videos. I agree – but I disagree that this would be a case of significant misrepresentation: at worst it would give people the impression that certain practices are more common than they actually are. This particular brand of misrepresentation is ubiquitous throughout the media: anyone watching the news could be excused from believing that every inch of Afghanistan consists of desert teeming with insurgents and/or ‘allied’ forces, that everyone in certain African countries is starving, that every care home resident is at immediate risk of mistreatment, etc. (N.B. I am not belittling the very serious harms in such reports, just making the point that the very nature of the news media encourages inaccurate generalisations). Besides, there is no escaping the facts that meat is made from animals that are bred and killed for that purpose, and that there is probably no practicable way of killing animals en masse without causing pain and/or distress to them. Footage of what goes on in slaughterhouses need not be misrepresentative in order to be shocking, but I universally installing CCTV could be expected to reduce the amount of misrepresentative, shocking footage.

      You say: ‘The alternative might be to just make all the CCTV videos viewable on some public site. But as I said, I don’t think this is very respectful of the privacy rights of the workers. You might not have much sympathy for their interests or rights, given their complicity in the cruel practices, but I think it’s those who own and operate the factory farms (rather than those who directly handle the animals) who really bear primary responsibility, and in most cases they wouldn’t appear on CCTV.’

      Well, the footage could be made public but with the workers’ faces blurred out. But I don’t think it needs to be made public – there just needs to be sufficient public confidence that the relevant authorities are doing their jobs properly. Perhaps having some public access might be the best way to do this, but that need not involve broadcasting it on an easily-accessible website. It could, instead, involve making it available to people who visit their council offices (and the workers’ faces could, again, be obscured). I agree with you that the owners/operators of factory farms and slaughterhouses bear primary responsibility for ensuring that no abuse goes on in their businesses – but I think that the attitude of animal charities is generally about right on this. They generally react to revelations of abuse by shaming and taking action against the companies in question, rather than specifically targeting the individual abusers (although, of course, action against the companies often results in prosecution of the abusers, and rightly so).

      You also observe that slaughterhouse (etc.) owners may argue that, whilst footage from slaughterhouses may be disturbing, this does not entail that it is immoral. You compare this to the fact that whilst some may find footage of gay sex disgusting, this does not entail that it is immoral; and that whilst fetuses may look a bit like full-term babies, this does not entail that killing a fetus is as bad as killing a baby. I reject the analogy here. I agree with you that the mere fact that one responds to gay sex (or anything else) with disgust does not entail that gay sex is wrong. And I agree that whilst fetuses may look like babies, there may (depending on the developmental stage of the fetus) be morally significant differences between fetuses and babies, meaning that those who believe babies and fetuses to be morally equivalent make an error. But, I don’t think these erroneous sorts of inference from emotion to moral judgment are anywhere near as widespread in the case of people’s reactions to footage of slaughterhouse practices and the like. People are disturbed because they are confronted with footage of animals that are clearly in pain, in distress, or have their movement unnaturally restricted for long periods of time. In other words, viewers see that the animals are suffering. The judgment that suffering is morally bad is not controversial in the way that e.g. the judgment that disgusting things are morally bad is. I don’t think that even slaughterhouse owners would want to take issue with the belief that suffering is bad. Of course, there may be many cases where an animal appears to be suffering but is not, or appears to be suffering more than it actually is, and perhaps this is what you think the owners of slaughterhouses would argue – but the wealth of evidence available online makes this argument seem laughably weak, even if you factor in the suspicion that this evidence might sometimes be misrepresentative.

      (An aside: you express surprise that anti-gay activists don’t generally publicise footage of gay sex in order to generate disgust and anti-gay sentiment. My impression is that gays have already used something like this tactic to their advantage: the ‘gay pride’ movement, and the sort of ostentatious expressions of homosexuality that seemed to be more common before homosexuality became widely accepted, seemed to aim at increasing visibility of homosexuality in an attempt to normalise it. And there is much evidence that this sort of tactic works. For this reason, I have mixed feelings about publicising images of suffering animals in an attempt to increase public concern about their plight: I fear that as people get used to seeing it, they will cease to care. I once left some anti-vivisection leaflets on a tube train. The leaflets prominently featured a photo of a suffering animal. I watched a woman get on the train, blithely move one of the leaflets out of her way, and carry on reading her magazine. I found this almost as disturbing as the image on the leaflet. I should add that this all happened late at night – I’m happy to disturb adults with this sort of thing, but would not wish to cause young children to have nightmares.)

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