guest commentary by Desiree Bender, the Arkansas legislative consultant for The Humane Society of the United States
Editor’s note: Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
As The City Wire has reported, Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, introduced two anti-speech bills, SB 13/SB 14, that, if passed, will criminalize the actions of those who dare to document unethical or illegal misconduct at industrial farming operations.
As if that isn’t a brazen enough attack on the First Amendment, one of the bills is written so vaguely that simply calling the police to report a case of dog or cat abuse could land an Arkansas resident who is trying to fulfill his or her civic duty behind bars.
If passed, these anti-whistleblower bills will dangerously compromise our food system and ban one of the few ways that abuse on industrial animal farms is discovered.
Since Upton Sinclair first shed light on widespread problems in the meat industry with his book, “The Jungle,” whistleblowers have consistently revealed food safety and animal welfare issues in our nation’s food system. Over time, this process has made our food supply and animal agriculture better and stronger, not worse and weaker.
For example, The HSUS’ 2008 undercover investigation into the mistreatment of animals at the country’s second largest supplier of meat to the National School Lunch Program revealed sick and injured animals being slaughtered and processed for food and sent to school cafeterias around the country. This led to the largest meat recall in the nation's history and a federal lawsuit to recover hundreds of millions of dollars for a slaughter plant defrauding the federal government.
Recently, a partial settlement was reached with two of the defendants, the terms of which included the entry of an approximately $500 million judgment against the Hallmark Meat Packing Company.
Rather than cleaning up its act, the agribusiness industry opts to shoot the messengers – or, in this case, imprison them. Sen. Stubblefield seems all too happy to oblige. But should he be allowed to oblige?
His attempt to hide agricultural practices from the public is also unsettling given that as a dairy farmer, he receives tax payer money in the form of subsidies – $155,568 from 1995 to 2011 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Is it fair to open one’s pockets to take handouts from the public while banning the public from seeing what those dollars support?
Stubblefield is responding to harsh criticism of the proposed legislation by making outlandish claims about our organization. He is pulling from the playbook of notorious corporate front man Richard Berman, a beltway lobbyist who started as a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry and now does the dirty work for corporations with practices that are harmful to animals – practices that if exposed would cause public outrage. These businesses would like nothing more than to hide behind the shroud Stubblefield’s legislation would provide.
The HSUS received the highest possible rating of four stars by Charity Navigator, is approved by the Better Business Bureau for all 20 standards for charity accountability, was voted by Guidestar’s Philanthropedia experts as the #1 high-impact animal protection group, and was named by Worth Magazine as one of the 10 most fiscally responsible charities.
By contrast, Richard Berman’s group has received a “donor advisory” from Charity Navigator and has been exposed by the nation’s leading news organizations for manufacturing misinformation – the kind of misinformation that Stubblefield is using as a flimsy attempt to distract Arkansans from his critics.
The HSUS works hard to earn consistently high ratings among third party reviewers. For example, we provided direct care for more than 100,000 animals in 2012 – more than any other U.S.-based animal welfare group -- through rescue, rehabilitation, veterinary care and sanctuary. We also support local animal shelters and rescue groups with training, national conferences, a national magazine and website and our public service advertising campaign with the Ad Council, which has generated more than $100 million in free advertising to support these local shelters and groups.
We aid shelters when natural disasters and cruelty cases overwhelm their capacity to respond. And we have major campaigns to address puppy mills, animal fighting, poaching and other wildlife abuses, in order to prevent cruelty before animals are made to suffer.
We also work to address inhumane factory farming practices, and that includes showing the public what is happening to animals in industrial operations, while Stubblefield’s legislation seeks to close the curtain.
Polls show that more than nine out of 10 Americans believe farm animals deserve to be well-cared for, yet undercover investigations consistently reveal the opposite treatment – standard practices that lead to horrific suffering. To ban these investigations would allow unscrupulous corporations to flout the values of American consumers.
For example, last year, The HSUS released undercover footage revealing inhumane conditions at a Wyoming pig breeding facility owned by a supplier for Arkansas-based Tyson Foods. The footage revealed workers kicking living piglets like soccer balls, swinging sick piglets in circles by their hind legs and striking and kicking mother pigs among many other instances of mistreatment.
The HSUS notified local authorities and, subsequently, law enforcement brought criminal charges against nine employees. Tyson severed ties with the facility. This is the kind of atrocity Stubblefield’s legislation would hide from the scrutiny of consumers.
Arkansans, we should be alarmed by Stubblefield’s bills, and a brief phone call to his office asking that they be pulled could make all the difference. Don’t let Arkansas become a haven for businesses that aim to hide their inhumane and dangerous practices in the shadows. Instead, let us stand up for transparency and integrity in our food system – for the safety of both consumers and animals.