Through Whose Eyes?: Meatpacking, Videos, Justice, and Animal Cruelty

I'm getting ready to go on vacation (A REAL ONE!!) (aka: one in which I don't have to cook), but I wanted to note an event of yesterday: Officials with the USDA shut down a California meatpacking plant after animal rights activists gave the department a video that, they claimed, demonstrated "cruel" behavior on the part of packing plant employees.

I only found out about this when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called me for a comment. We talked at length, thank god, because my experience is that people freak out when someone (me) doesn't instantly freak out when stuff like this happens. (Packing plant cruelty, I mean, not me answering questions.)

I told her what I believe:

The USDA shouldn't rush to judgment based on a video shot by animal rights activists (or locavores or any other activists who would prefer to shut down meatpacking plants). I mean, think about it: These activists shoot a video (undercover, of course), hand it over, and suddenly the plant's owners and employees are screwed. And unemployed.

Hello? In this country, don't we do the "innocent until proven guilty" thing?

But, you say, there was a VIDEO. Surely that's proof that something was amiss.

Nyet. Got a camera or phone that shoots video? Quick. Run outside and shoot a minute of action. Then load that vid onto your computer and start using Photoshop or a similar program to alter your original film. Make the sky dark when it's actually sunny outside. Erase the person sitting at the wheel of the car so it looks like the car is driving itself.

You get my (sarcastic) drift: Anyone can make any video present any image. Here's a nice (and relevant) example from the late, great Chris Raines.

In the case of this recent California video, the world's premier designer of humane slaughtering systems, Temple Grandin, agreed that it was at least  a bit misleading.

But forget the video for a moment. The larger point, as I told the reporter, is that "cruelty" is in the eyes of the beholder (which was also Grandin's point). In this case, the activists complained that they saw

 cows being jabbed, hit, electrically shocked and sprayed with hot water.

Ya think? It's a slaughterhouse and packing plant, for crying out loud. Workers there kill thousands of animals a day. I have no doubt that at least some of those animals, perhaps even all, are "being jabbed, hit, electrically shocked [or] sprayed with hot water." That's what happens in a packing plant, in part, of course, because the animals aren't necessarily cooperative.

But I'm also sure that people who work in packing plants eventually become utterly and completely inured to the feelings and pain of the thousands of animals who parade by them each day. That's the nature of the [human] beast.

Before you zip off an email denouncing me for being a cruel monster, please note: I don't now and never have advocated animal cruelty. But: if people are going to eat meat, then animals will and do die. Period. If you don't want this to happen, then you should a) not eat meat; and b) try to convince everyone else to do the same.

Whether vegetarian or devoted meat eater, we also ought to care about justice, and in this case, the plant owners certainly didn't enjoy anything remotely resembling justice. Bare minimum, the USDA ought to have independently verified the behavior of plant employees before they decided to throw them all out of work. I have no doubt that some packing plant employees behave badly, just as some human beings behave badly. But punishing every plant employee and the plant owners based on a few minutes of (again unverified) video hardly seems fair.

Put another way, and a lot more bluntly, one thing we humans possess is a rational mind. Why don't we use it, instead of submitting to emotion?