In 2018, Erin Wing worked for two months at a 1,000-cow dairy in Chambersburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, about three hours west of Philadelphia, where she was one of 10 employees who milked and fed the cows. However, something set him apart from the other workers: Wing wore a hidden camera and lived a double life as an undercover detective for Animal Outlook, an animal welfare nonprofit.
During his work, Wing captured various horrors on film. Some were inhumane but legal and not uncommon in the dairy industry, such as removing the horns of calves – so that the horns do not injure workers – without pain relief, such as anesthesia or anti-inflammatory drugs.
But he also documented cruel acts that seemed completely unjustified, such as employees beating, trampling, and kicking cows, and much more, which I omit for the peace of mind of readers.
“In total, we documented more than 300 incidents that we thought violated Pennsylvania law,” said Will Lowrey, an Animal Outlook attorney.
The Pennsylvania State Police launched an investigation and announced more than a year later that the Pennsylvania Franklin County District Attorney’s Office in Chambersburg is not prosecuting the farm as a company, the owner, and 14 current and former employees. . Police also assured the public that the farm had taken steps to improve training and animal husbandry procedures. (The Pennsylvania State Police refused the interview, Martin Farms was not reached, and the Franklin County District Attorney did not respond.)
The prosecutor’s decision was not surprising. Most undercover investigations documenting cruelty to farm animals do not lead to criminal prosecution, and when they do, it is usually due to more glaring, often one-off, atrocities committed by stressful, low-paid workers. Routine but inhumane practices introduced by the owner – and often widespread throughout the industry – are not being investigated, although they cause much more animal suffering.
And with 9 billion animals a year in the meat, dairy and egg industries, and only a handful of secret detectives documenting how they are treated, consumers and decision-makers remain in the dark. This system persists because farm animals are largely invisible in law.
But because of a oddity in the Pennsylvania Code — the ability of individuals to challenge the decision of government officials not to prosecute — Animal Outlook has been able to circumvent this invisibility and set a new precedent in animal law. However, before I get to that, it helps to understand the legal system under which animals are bred.
How the livestock lobby removed farm animals from the law
At the federal level, there are no laws that protect animals while they are on the farm.
The Animal Welfare Act, which lays down minimum requirements for animals used or kept in zoos or research, explicitly exempts animals raised for food. The Humane Slaughter Methods Act and the 28-Hour Act (the latter applies to farm animals in transit) are weakly enforced, and both exempt poultry, which accounts for 98 percent of terrestrial animals raised for food in the United States.
All states have an anti-cruelty law, and some farmed animals are exempt in full, while most exempt from “normal farming practices” – or as Pennsylvania law puts it, “normal farming operations”. No matter how inhuman these practices seem, as long as they are generally applied, year after year.
“In much of the United States, prosecutors, judges, and juries no longer have the power to decide whether or not to treat farm animals in an acceptable manner,” wrote animal health professors Mariann Sullivan and David Wolfson in their basic text about the state and the state. federal exemptions against cruelty. “Only industry determines the criminality of its own behavior.”
As a result, only the most extreme atrocities, such as some of the acts documented at Martin Farms, can be prosecuted under the law. But they usually turn out only when a group like Animal Outlook sends a detective to one of America’s tens of thousands of factory farms, leaving most abuses undocumented and unanswered.
And even if an investigator can be located on a farm, political and cultural factors pose serious obstacles to prosecuting the abuses they document. Farm farms are usually located in rural areas, where they are deeply embedded in the fabric of the region’s politics, economy, and culture, so sheriffs and district prosecutors are often reluctant to take action. When they do, it is usually against low-income employees who are disproportionately immigrant and labeled as “bad apple” workers, while (typically white) owners and management are often fired.
“You see this syndrome when the owner says,‘ Oh my God, I’m so shocked – it’s awful. We will be fired immediately and will be prosecuted. ”- Sullivan teaches animal law at Cornell Law School and is a host Animal rights podcast, he told me. “So people at a very low level are being prosecuted for this unjustified cruelty. … And they have the right to be thrown under the bus by the owners.
This kind of outcome of covert investigations happens quite often, forcing some members of the animal welfare movement to critically examine the careralistic approach to investigative work.
By passing the laws, animal rights activists in 14 states have been able to ban or restrict the use of certain standard breeding practices, especially cages and crates for hens and pigs. But the legislative path is slow and difficult; bills for the welfare of farmed animals must, even for a full vote, first go through the State Committee for Agriculture, where they usually die, as they are often led by industry-friendly legislators.
Defenders have achieved some success by getting the vote directly to the people, but these are costly, and less than half of U.S. states allow such direct action.
This challenging legal environment and the political and cultural factors that close the gaps that can be bridged have long confused animal lawyers and animal rights activists, who have collected thousands of hours of footage of animal torture during their secret investigations. But because of the aforementioned oddity of Pennsylvania law — you can go to court to dismiss a district attorney’s denial of prosecution — Animal Outlook has changed which practices can be considered “normal.”
The organization’s original petition was rejected and he appealed to the Pennsylvania High Court. In a precedent-setting decision last month, the court’s three-judge panel ruled that the lower court should oblige the Franklin County District Attorney to prosecute Martin Farms for animal torture, including common practices such as analgesia without pain relief.
“The most obvious evidence that the trial court disregarded was the dehorning of the calves …” the ruling said. Referring to veterinarian Dr. Holly Cheever, who reviewed the test recordings, the decision stated that “the technique used by Martin Farms in the video caused the calves painful pain, as evidenced by their violent beating and growling. . ‘”
The judge described the district prosecutor’s position as disabling without relieving pain, causing a crack in the meat industry’s iron-backed legal armor.
Examining Animal Outlook could affect the future of animal law
“I can’t even describe how I felt,” Wing, the detective, said when he first heard about the verdict. “I’ve been thinking about Martin Farms and that investigation for years. … I must have had nightmares about what I saw there. ”
“I think this is a wonderful and important case,” Sullivan said. “It is obviously limited to Pennsylvania, but the fact that an appellate court has examined this situation clearly seems horrible… a very big matter.”
The case would have been influential even if it had focused only on the more harmful acts of animal torture, but more importantly, the court has also questioned whether the dehorning of calves without analgesia should be considered “normal” from the outset (and if not, criminal proceedings). can start). The court also found that Martin Farms ’dehorning was not normal because staff treated the calves roughly and performed dehorning at a time when the practice was more painful.
Since Pennsylvania’s Anti-Cruelty Act exempts “normal farm operations,” this decision could lead to lawyers questioning other general farming practices in the courts.
Horn removal without analgesia exists in the “normal gray zone” because although some dairy organizations don’t like it, many farmers do it because they don’t consider it necessary to relieve pain, they don’t know about the medications available. , or the medication is taking too long. A 2021 survey of 217 dairy farmers in Wisconsin, which ranks second in milk production, found that only half used painkillers for the procedure.
Does this make it a normal farming practice? When does a practice go from normal to abnormal, from legal to illegal? As the cages of laying hens are replaced by systems without cages, what will be the threshold that tilts the cages from normal to cruel in the eyes of the law? One day a Pennsylvania judge may decide.
“How could this be a common practice – to press a hot iron into the skull of a young calf and burn its skin, burn its horn tissue, and especially without anesthetic? Wing says. “To acknowledge this [by the court] it’s really incredible. ”
The decision “sends a clear message that animals used in agriculture are protected by law,” Lowrey said.
And while the precedent is limited to Pennsylvania, it is important in two other ways. First, Pennsylvania is a major agricultural state, ranked fourth in egg production, seventh in dairy, 10th in turkey, and 14th in chicken. In total, more than 235 million animals are raised for food in the state each year. Those who advocate for them now have another tool in their legal toolbox.
Sullivan says it also sets a cultural precedent that cannot be ignored – and it gives decision-makers across the country to refer to questioning the exemptions of other states.
It can take months or even years for the matter to be resolved and anything can happen. The Franklin County District Attorney can appeal and dismiss the case, blurring a new precedent in animal law. The case could go ahead and the district attorney could fail their case or successfully sue Martin Farms, stressing that analgesia without painkillers is no longer “normal” in farming in Pennsylvania, setting a cultural precedent in a significant agricultural area. condition.
But whatever the outcome, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling illustrates what can happen if standard but horrible farming practices are put under the microscope: Institutions governing American farming and eating can be forced to evolve.