"Animal Rights Group’s Video of Hens Raises Questions, but Not Just for Farms"
New York Times - Jan 09, 2015
Early last week the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere released a harrowing video based on an undercover investigation of Petaluma Farms, a Northern California operation that supplies eggs to Whole Foods and Organic Valley. In it, hundreds of chickens are shown crammed into sheds and suffering several obvious ailments, including respiratory distress and being stuck in feces.
Wayne Hsiung, a former Northwestern University law professor and co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere, began breaking into farms while working as a corporate lawyer back in the early 2000s. But this particular investigation was a departure for him because it revealed abuse on a farm that’s cage free, organic, and Humane Certified.
He summarized what he encountered in these terms: “crowding, stress, filth, disease, and, finally, mutilation and death.” This is not what your average Whole Foods shopper has in mind when she picks up a carton of Organic Valley eggs. But it’s exactly what’s happening on the farm, and consumers have a right to know about it.
And the New York Times had an opportunity to inform them. Indeed, Direct Action Everywhere’s investigation was evidently significant enough for the Times to cover it (in its business section, oddly enough)—and the paper deserves credit for lending the matter some ink.
The problem, though, is that the Times blew it. The story—as reported by Stephanie Strom and Sabrina Tavernise—spends more time questioning the use of undercover video footage than highlighting the brutality of its content. Ironically, while the article implicitly challenges the legitimacy of Direct Action Everywhere’s undercover images, it evidently has no problem including (without critical commentary) promotional material from Petaluma Farms (such as a link to its Facebook page with videos on it, now dead.)
Most of the Times piece is dedicated to allowing the industry to defend itself rather than driving home the details of the video, which it calls “disturbing” in its lead, but never indicates why. Before offering any of the video’s content—which, as you can see for yourself, is horrific—the article instead focuses on this point: “The hens in the video belong to Petaluma Farms, whose owners assert that the group is distorting and exaggerating the conditions under which its organic and conventional eggs are raised.” With that, the tables are turned and the investigation is under scrutiny.
When the piece gets to the video per se, it dodges the details once again, noting, “This latest dispute over the treatment of animals used in food production provides an example of how prevalent the use of graphic videos as a publicity tactic is becoming. But these videos can also be mystifying, if not misleading. . .” It then turns the mic over to the farm’s owner, who the reporters paraphrase in these terms: “He said he was confident that only three birds were featured in the video and that none were from his organic flock.”
Three birds? Of course, that claim is absurd—as you can tell from the video itself. And that brings me to another problem with the article: it didn’t include the video when the story ran. Doing so, naturally, would have offered direct evidence that Petaluma was lying, thereby requiring a major shift in the story’s focus, one that would have to be highly critical of Petaluma, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Humane Certified—all of whom benefit from the abuse Direct Action Everywhere documents. Evidently it’s safer and easier to go after a small group of activists who have little power than a phalanx of corporate interests.
There’s so much more that’s wrong here. The piece paraphrases Hsiung as saying: “Direct Action Everywhere had found dozens of chickens in poor condition but had highlighted only a few in the video.” But Hsiung told me in an interview yesterday that this was a blatant misquote—something he directly told the reporters when he saw this wording during the fact-checking process. He wrote in an email to the reporters, “no, that’s not accurate,” noting that hundreds of birds were highlighted as being in distress, not “a few.”
The reporters acknowledged his email but never made the change.
There are also sins of omission. When it comes to the Humane Certified label, the reporters paraphrase Adele Douglass of Humane Certified: “Ms. Douglass said Petaluma Farms’ certification had expired in June. She said it had applied for recertification but, because of staffing issues at her organization, the inspection required to renew the certification has not yet been done.” But they never note the critical point that the farm continued to apply the label, and add value on its basis, after expiration.
And, finally, there’s just plain old implausibility. Confronted with the reality of birds who have been feather-pecked into baldness as a direct result of confinement-induced aggression, the reporters wonder, “Is the forlorn-looking, nearly bald hen a victim of feather pecking, a behavioral tic acquired by chickens in close quarters? Or is the hen simply molting?” Interesting that they bend over backwards to challenge an obvious physical reality of confinement but treat the film that exposed that reality with such trumped-up skepticism.
In the end, this article is deeply skewed toward an industry-sympathetic perspective. Petaluma Farms, which is essentially a factory farm that happens to produce organic eggs, was busted fair and square by activists who have graphic evidence to prove it. The Times, which gets credit for even bothering to cover the issue, went to great lengths to ignore the obvious.