Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bringing Accuracy and Context
to Animal Journalism

New York Times’ House of Animal Horrors Stuns Readers

Rated: A

Article Review:

"U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit"

New York Times  -  Jan 21, 2015

The brilliance of Michael Moss’s much-discussed Times article, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer In Quest For Profit,” speaks for itself. It’s a masterpiece of rigorous reporting that culminated in a story of animal abuse told from the rarest of perspectives: that of animals. In this piece, unlike in so much other reporting on agribusiness, animals mattered.

What also mattered was the corruption within the USDA and between the USDA and industry. Moss doesn’t deny these institutions—all complicit in the terrible treatment of animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center—an opportunity to defend the horrors they instigated with minimal regulation. Rather, he allows the vacuity of their answers to stand on their own terms.

Notably, after documenting a wide array of federally-sponsored animal abuse, he ends his article with a line that says it all: “The center said it lacked the expertise to assess the pain felt by animals.” The lameness here is obvious, which I imagine is exactly what Moss intended.

The difficulty readers will most likely have with the article concerns the graphic nature of the content itself. Animals were serially operated on for experimental purposes by people without veterinary degrees; a cow was restrained by the head and persistently mounted by six bulls in rapid succession until her legs broke, she collapsed, and died; lambs were torn from their mothers and placed out in a desolate field to see how long it would take for them to be savaged by wolves; and so on. All in the name of increased productivity for agribusiness.

The critical point to remember here—and the lesson that I hope journalists covering agriculture will heed—is that humans execute such atrocities on animals all the time. What happened to the poor animals at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center might have been extreme, but it wasn’t anomalous.

Humans have permission to behave this way when they own animals. When an animal becomes property he becomes an object who is subject to sanctioned and unfathomable abuse. The abuse inflicted on the pigs, sheep, and cows at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center confirmed that point graphically, but every industrial farm that raises animals for food is complicit in the suffering that Michael Moss uncovered.

Every story on agribusiness needs to acknowledge this reality.

 

 

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8 Comments on New York Times’ House of Animal Horrors Stuns Readers

  1. “every industrial farm that raises animals for food is complicit” Just to make sure I’m understanding accurately: aren’t alternative farms (which many of the article’s comments advocated, of course) also complicit, as their animal breeds also derive from this and similar breeding and research facilities?

  2. James McWilliams // January 22, 2015 at 5:11 pm // Reply

    It is most often–but not always the case–that small farms are complicit. I have learned about farms, very rare mind you, that do their own breeding and practice very high welfare standards. Of course, these animals are slaughtered, but the horrors noted in the Moss article all happened beyond an abattoir, so I thought it would be inaccurate for me to say “all farms” raising animals for food are complicit. This is not an endorsement, of course, but just an effort to be as accurate as I can.
    JM

  3. John T. Maher // January 22, 2015 at 5:11 pm // Reply

    Moss is one of the few writers at the NYT to focus a critical gaze upon BigAg. Remember his article on the E coli outbreak traceable to Cargill focused on the human cost of eating meat as did his book on food addiction. It only makes sense for him to consider the critters. The brilliance is he allows the USDA to hang itself. How different is this quote “The center said it lacked the expertise to assess the pain felt by animals.” from Hannah Ahrendt’s writings on evil and the human condition in the context of Eichmann’s trial? Eichmann claimed to be just moving boxcars on schedule not killing anyone. The US Meat Research Center of the USDA is essentially doing the same. Send Moss another Pulitzer.

  4. John T. Maher // January 22, 2015 at 11:41 pm // Reply

    Following on the theme of ‘complicity’ mentioned by Ellen K and responded to by JMcW: we are all complicit and this term means something worse by its universality. Thus, collective ‘knowledge’ gleaned from the USDA torture center is a form of complicity, in much the same way that the medical knowledge taken from Nazi doctors researching exposure to cold temperature is knowledge. It was certainly valid science and the results are used today in praxis. Same with the USDA knowledge.

  5. I am surprised by your response to this article. I understand that the expose on the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is important, and I too applaud that effort. However, over and over again Moss acts as an apologist for the routine abuses of animals in slaughterhouses and research labs all over the country. He casts an uncritical eye on the routine abuses that go on in research labs in all major universities – he applauds the current system of essentially in house monitoring – a system that is derelict. In addition, he suggests that the USDA routinely investigates such institutions in a rigorous way – again, a huge fallacy. He essentially scapegoats this one facility and gives a clean bill of health to all of the other atrocities that routinely go on. Who does he cite as the go to expert on this – Temple Grandin, no less. Unfortunately he ends up being an apologist for the broader system he accepts without question.

    • John T. Maher // January 26, 2015 at 2:57 pm // Reply

      Moss is certainly a welfarist unconcerned with the structural elements of animal instrumentality, as are almost all his confreres at NYT. That said, the article is great as far as its welfare message. Animal protection begins with welfare and expands towards the structural elements. Fighting for the minds of people like Moss who are bright and educated a bit but have never thought issues through on a deep or meaningful level is a lifelong struggle for you and I and we are changing what is normalized. The Fourth Estate’s clipping ultimately end up in the dustbin and Moss is not a scholar but as far as exposing shocking brutality he wrote a credible piece.

  6. The NY Times just wrote a great editorial about this story:

    Farming Science, Without the Conscience
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/26/opinion/farming-science-without-the-conscience.html

  7. Curious as to how exactly you know that Moss’s research on this piece was “rigorous.”

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