Business & Policy
Here’s the Point: July-August 2015
By Leslie Ballentine
Undercover investigations changing
By Leslie Ballentine
I prefer to call it spying, but call it what you may, undercover investigations on farms and elsewhere are changing. This past spring saw a number of investigations released in quick succession to the media by groups such as the HSUS, MFA, PETA and others. While it appears that activist groups are stepping up their “investigation” efforts, it is nothing new. PETA conducted its first undercover investigation in 1981, later proven to have been staged but costing lasting damage to the reputation and work of the researcher in question. What is new is how the animal agriculture sector is adapting their response. In the U.S. where the majority of these infiltrations occur, some continue to pursue state-level legislative efforts. Failures and legal challenges have invoked others to take a different approach. Some commodity groups, including some here in Canada, utilize third-party experts to review video documentation taken by undercover activists – often missing the 24 hr. news cycle or limiting coverage to the farm press. Third party experts are used because activists do the same, except they do it at the time of their press conferences or TV appearances.
In June, Dairy Farmers of America (a cooperative with 1400 members) put the jump on Mercy for Animals (MFA) by conducting an audit and sending out a press release before the animal rights group made its recordings public. The video taken at one of its members’ farms alleged animal cruelty. On learning of the infiltration, DFA acted quickly and called in their third party auditor. Based on the results of the investigative audit, the farm was placed on probationary status pending the successful completion of a corrective action plan.
In its press release, DFA even included the video, saying “animal abuse in the dairy industry is not tolerated.” The heavily edited five minute video was taken over a two month period by a hired MFA investigator. The farm owners issued their own statement and were shocked by the behavior of both the involved employees and the MFA imposter. The owners also questioned why the undercover activist, Jessica Buck, did “not bring these concerns to our attention immediately?” Following the audit, the employees in question were fired. And the farm owners worked cooperatively with the local sheriff office by identifying the employees captured in the video. The farm also said it would work with DFA to lay charges against the infiltrator for not reporting the abuse as required under the farm’s employment requirements.
DFA also used the incident to build public trust by admitting responsibility and explained how the farm would be getting better with new employees. Further, they noted that the cooperative instituted many best practices for its farms nearly a decade ago. They also took further steps by creating a campaign to encourage reporting of suspected animal abuse on farms including hashtag #ReportNotRecord on social media to gather public support.
A week prior to the dairy farm allegations by MFA, the HSUS released a video of an U.S. egg farm and a major supplier to Costco retailers. Showing “inhumane treatment of animals and food safety concerns” with voiceovers by HSUS executives, the media and fundraising campaign only received brief attention but garnered more than 173,000 views within the first four days, an indication that the U.S. media may be tiring of such exposes. Costco tactfully announced that it “would not drop the farm in question.” Instead, the farm and retailer went on the offensive by pointing out that the images of filthy aisles and dead or suffering hens were part of the HSUS investigator’s job. The farm reported the most recent inspection by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, in October 2014, showed over 90 percent compliance with standards, “which is good,” agency spokesman Logan Hall wrote in an email. After receiving the video, the farm also hired independent local poultry experts to review its operations. An inspection by Costco representatives came to the same conclusion saying “Hillandale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve, including process improvement and more training for its employees,” a clear sign that egg suppliers are working with retailers to develop strategies.
But so are the activists. In the dairy farm incident media reported that all of the video footage had been turned over to police by the activist group—something MFA has been criticized for. To verify the farm, Mercy for Animals provided pay stubs from their infiltrator. Here’s the point: All the best practices in the world won’t stop your farm from being infiltrated. A sound crisis communications strategy can.