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The Largest Organic Poultry Producer in the Nation is a Sham (Part II + Podcast)
The trial of animal rights activists in Sonoma County will give the citizens of California a choice: support rescuers, or support corporate abuse.
(This is the second blog post in a series about the fraud in organic meat production. The first post is here.)
In September 2018, we were in an impossible situation.
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The largest organic poultry producer in the nation, Perdue Farms, was falsely marketing its products as “free range” – and also violating federal law, which requires organic livestock be raised with “outdoor access.” Worse than the consumer fraud was the animal cruelty; we found numerous baby birds collapsed on the ground, from injuries or disease. These animals, who were slowly starving to death, appeared in some cases to have been left in that horrifying condition for days, if not weeks. This was a clear violation of California animal cruelty law, which provides that “every person who… causes… any animal to be.. tortured, tormented, deprived of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter” is guilty of a felony or misdemeanor. And it was happening at factory farms across the entire county, just an hour from where I lived.
We had reported these violations of law to state and local authorities on numerous occasions. We had even met with Sonoma County attorneys and law enforcement, including at an extended in-person meeting on September 6, 2018, and showed them the exact provisions of law, and indisputable evidence, indicating that criminal animal cruelty was unfolding in the county’s factory farms.
And, in all my conversations with Sonoma County authorities and lawyers, not a single one even attempted to explain why our concerns about animal cruelty were wrong. Instead, there was only deflection. The authorities effectively conceded that our evidence showed that factory farms were causing animals to be “tortured, tormented, deprived of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter” – but offered a hodgepodge of rationalizations as to why they would not take even the most minimal action.
They first said that other government agencies were more appropriate for this case, and specifically mentioned the US Department of Agriculture. I explained that the USDA has no authority to inspect factory farms – even when meat is making people sick – and further that it has neither the jurisdiction nor capacity to prosecute state animal cruelty laws. The USDA is a federal agency whose mission is to support agriculture, not to hold agriculture accountable to state criminal laws.
The Sonoma authorities also stated, with no evidence, that the farms appeared to be meeting industry standards. I responded that, even if that were true, industry standards don’t define the law. By way of comparison, it is not a defense to dogfighting to say that other people are fighting dogs, too.
But perhaps the most interesting rationalization for the county’s inaction was a comment that Tony Linegar, the county agricultural commissioner made, shortly before we closed the meeting. Yes, he said, the conditions at these farms might seem cruel. Yes, they might even be unlawful. But at the end of the day, consumers are the problem. As some of the largest food producers in the nation, the companies at issue supplied food for millions of consumers. How can we target these corporations, Linegar asked, when they’re simply selling what consumers want to buy?
This, in my view, is the dominant reason for government inaction in the face of systemic animal cruelty. The authorities do not see the abuse of animals as a product of corporate misconduct but of consumer choice. And because virtually every consumer is buying products such as those sold at Petaluma Poultry, there’s no basis for legal action. If everyone is doing it, how could it possibly be wrong? This is how the normalization of evil takes root.
But what’s left unsaid in this analysis is whether consumers truly have a meaningful choice. When consumers are taught that animals live wonderful lives in food production, it should come as no surprise that they continue to support abusive industries. Indeed, one survey showed that 75% of Americans believe that the animal products they buy are from sources where “animals… are treated humanely.” The lies told by companies like Perdue Foods and Whole Foods are, sadly, effective. See our short documentary on the subject:
There’s also the question of “choice architecture,” i.e., the way the system around a consumer presents the various choices. Most people are taught, from the day they are born, that eating animal products is a necessary part of life; it’s a central part of the federal government’s food pyramid. When a choice is presented as necessary, consumers will feel compelled to take it, even if it also feels wrong. This is how millions of Americans, 49% of whom say they would like to ban factory farms, are induced to nonetheless provide financial support for abusive corporations. They are told they simply have to consume the products and are denied a meaningful choice.
But how do we solve this problem? Sociologist Doug McAdam, a founding figure in the modern study of social movements, has shown that change happens when people have a sense of collective power and hope, i.e., when they feel they have a real choice to do something different and better. What unfolded in September 2018 in Sonoma County was putting McAdam’s theory in action. We wanted to give the community of Sonoma, for perhaps the first time in its political history, a meaningful choice: side with the companies who torment animals or side with those who rescue them from abuse.
To do that, we needed to take action.
I won’t bore you with all the details of our action preparations other than to say they were extensive, and at every step grounded in our legal rights. Most notably, we had asked a renowned criminal law scholar, Prof. Hadar Aviram, to examine our situation and advise us as to our legal rights.
And she told us what I had known for many years: We have the right to rescue animals from abuse.
Hadar has since told me that, if she had known her opinion would end up being cited so extensively, she would have spent more time on it. But, to me, the opinion has always been a masterful exercise in clear legal argument. It spells out exactly what the law is and explains in very concise terms how, in a situation like the one we found ourselves in Sept 2018 in Sonoma County, ordinary citizens have the right to walk into a factory farm and give animals aid.
Two legal provisions formed the basis for Hadar’s opinion. The first was the doctrine of legal necessity. The classic example of this doctrine, in the context of animal rights, is the dog in a hot car. While it is usually unlawful to break someone’s car window, if you are breaking the window because it is necessary to save a dog who is dying of heatstroke, your actions are not just excused but legally justified. This was clearly what was happening in Sonoma County in September 2018, with animals collapsed, starving, and slowly rotting to death. They needed to be saved.
The second legal basis for the right to rescue was a little-known provision of the California penal code, Section 597e, that gave ordinary citizens the right to enter a place where animals are confined and give the animals food and water. I had read about this section for the first time in 2009, when Jonathan Safran Foer mentions it in the book Eating Animals. I was fascinated to discover, after analysis of the law’s history, that it was originally intended to protect farm animals, not dogs and cats. In the 1800s, when livestock were everywhere, it was common for people to see an animal who was starving or dehydrating – and decide they needed to give the animal aid. Section 597e was an attempt to enshrine this legal right, and even require compensation from the “owner” of the animal for any costs incurred in giving the needy animal care.
Together, these two provisions – necessity and 597e – gave ordinary citizens in California the right to aid animals in factory farms, particularly when the authorities were unwilling to take action. This was, in some ways, a radical statement. In a movement where many were scared to even speak against factory farms, in light of the attempts to unconstitutionally silence animal rights advocates across the nation, the notion that we had the right to not just speak but rescue might have seemed far-fetched. Yet the law was, to me, as clear as day. And applied to a slightly different context, such as the dog in a hot car, virtually no one would disagree with our legal conclusion. But no one had put this legal right to the test.
After years of animal cruelty complaints, it was time for us to do exactly that. But this was not just a test of our legal system. We knew, given the political power structure of Sonoma County, it was likely some or all of us would eventually face trial for rescuing animals, even with the law on our side. The true test we were hoping to take was a test for the people of Sonoma County. We wanted to ask them if, given the true and accurate facts of what is actually happening in Sonoma factory farms, they would side with the animal tormentors or the animal rescuers. The only way to do that, in a context when both the government and media were ignoring the issue, was to push that test into the court of law.
The plan for September 2018 was quite simple. We would peacefully walk into a Perdue factory farm, where investigators had identified sick and starving animals, and attempt to give sick and dying animals aid. We set up an animal care tent right outside the sheds on the company’s property. We had called a veterinarian and asked them to wait outside, on the public road, to provide emergency care. And dozens of people would simply walk into the farm, pursuant to their legal rights, and take the animals to receive that lifesaving care. You can watch the full livestream of the action below:
As you can see in the video, despite local law enforcement claims that they lacked the resources to address animal cruelty, they came out by the dozens to stop animal activism. Most of the officers, to be sure, may not have felt this was the crime of the century. (One officer even told us that we should just take the sickest animal and run. We took her advice.) But the result of the action on that day was 58 people charged with multiple felonies and sick, dying birds torn from the hands of the activists who were trying to save their lives.
While the severity of the charges, and their breadth, was shocking – the total bail required to get activists out of jail was hundreds of thousands of dollars (though it was all eventually returned) – this was all, in a deeper sense, an expected part of the plan. Going to court was and is the only way to address the sham that was being perpetrated on the public by one of the largest and most powerful companies in the state.
The court case, which eventually was reduced to only 6 activists out of the original 58, now approaches. And it will expose Perdue’s sham in two ways.
First, it will force attention to the problem of animal cruelty and dispel the company’s lies. While the authorities had ignored us for years, they cannot evade the legal process when we are the ones in court. The facts, circumstances, and motivations of those involved in the event on September 2018 will inevitably be subject to scrutiny. This is exactly what we wanted, then and now. But even so, I have been shocked by some of the things that have already been revealed by this transparency.
Most notably, the state’s own animal cruelty expert, a veterinarian in Sonoma County, confirmed our allegations of animal abuse against Perdue Foods. Let me reiterate. Perdue Foods is the largest organic poultry producer in the nation, and in recent years it has had a sterling reputation in animal care, including two glowing pieces in the most important newspaper in the nation, the New York Times. Yet this is what the state’s own vet found about the conditions inside one of their farms:
If this is the best that animal agriculture has to offer – free range, organic, and humane – then what does the worst look like?
Reading this report, even with its dry scientific language, brings tears to my eyes. I think of the countless downed animals I’ve seen on the floors of factory farms – and the terror and desperation in their eyes. I think of the fear my own little guy, Oliver, experienced when I rescued him from a dog meat farm in China; he still suffers from that trauma today, 6 years later. It’s hard to imagine or comprehend, but we intentionally inflict this sort of suffering – crowding, injuries, and wounds so deep and rotten that muscle and bone are exposed – on billions of animals every year.
The full report, moreover, shows that every single one of the birds we removed from Perdue’s facility was struggling to stand. Partly for that reason, and because of the government’s unwillingness to invest further in veterinary care, every single one of those birds was “euthanized.” When we sat in jail, all of us were hoping, against odds, that the government would do the right thing and release these animals, who were nothing more than “trash” to the industry, to animal advocates who could save their lives. But releasing the animals would also be releasing evidence of animal cruelty by one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the county. So, instead, all the birds were killed.
This all would have been ignored and forgotten but for one fact: We are being tried in a court of law. In that courtroom, this and other evidence will come out, and the industry and government will have no choice but to grapple with the evidence that, contrary to its public statements and reputation, Perdue Farms is torturing animals. The recent Smithfield trial, despite a tremendous effort to gag us, is proof of that. This is the power of court to reveal truths.
The second way this court case will take on the poultry industry’s sham, however, is by giving the local community a meaningful choice. Recall what I wrote previously, that the government justified inaction in the face of horrendous abuse by blaming consumer choice. Consumers, in turn, are blocked from making a meaningful choice by two factors: fraud in marketing; and a choice architecture that makes bad choices seem necessary.
This court case will overcome these obstacles. Rather than live in the fantasy world of Perdue’s marketing, the citizens on our jury will see the actual conditions inside Perdue’s farms. Even when our rights to present evidence are severely limited – as they were in North Carolina and Utah (but not in Iowa) – the very nature of a criminal trial requires our community to dive more deeply into the facts of a case.
And instead of framing support for animal rights in terms of animal-based food – which most citizens see as a “necessity” of human life – the fight over the right to rescue will frame the choice of animal rights around corporate cruelty and intimidation. Siding with the animals will require the jurors to simply say what all of our mothers once taught us: If you see someone who is suffering, you should try to help. That is a very different choice architecture than the one a consumer faces when trying to decide what to buy at McDonald’s. Instead of choosing what to eat, in a culture where we are taught that eating animals is “necessary,” citizens will instead choose whether to put someone in prison for giving aid to an animal. That is a much better rhetorical battleground for animal rights.
There is a long road ahead of us, of course. And there will be many pitfalls to overcome. Victory, moreover, is far from guaranteed. The industry will continue its efforts to deceive, even in court, and as Hadar and I discussed on my podcast, fearful government officials may support them in their lies – even if it puts innocent citizens in prison. But the recent victory over Smithfield shows that we can win, even in some of the most conservative counties of this nation and even against some of the most powerful adversaries.
The lie of humane animal farming – organic, free-range, high-welfare – continues to have immense sway. So too does a “choice architecture” that frames a bad choice as “necessary” and therefore blocks most people from recognizing a more ethical choice. But, as we go to court, we have on our side perhaps the most powerful force in the history of justice: the truth. We have no need to lie about what we did, and we have no desire to manipulate our fellow citizens to convince them that they have to make a bad choice.
We simply want them to make an honest decision, a decision of conscience. While we can’t guarantee the outcome in this specific case, I am confident that, over the long run, when our people are challenged with that decision – a real, honest, and meaningful decision – they will make the right choice in court (and beyond), and join us in supporting the right to rescue animals from abuse.
If you missed it, here’s The Largest Organic Poultry Producer in the Nation is a Sham: (Part I).
Some notes for the week.
If you’d like to dive deeper into the theory and practice of open rescue — including our legal strategy — I am leading a workshop on Saturday, December 3 in San Francisco. Here is the event page. This is a novel workshop. We place you in a mock open rescue team, and guide you through the process of organizing a (simulated) investigation and rescue, using real case studies. This will be my first time leading such a workshop in over four years, and I have learned an immense amount in that timeframe. Space is limited, and applications are required. So please sign up now if you’re interested!
Take this quick survey to let me know what want me to write about next. Next week, I’ll be using some of your comments and questions for two purposes: first, to help shape what I write; and second, with respect to any general questions, I’ll include them in a “mailbag” post where I answer whatever questions you might have.
The trial summit is still being planned for January 13-15 in Denver. Carve out that weekend to come to Denver if you’re interested in learning more about how we rescued two piglets from Smithfield — then won in a court of law. Again, I’ll share more details soon, but it should be an incredible few days!
That’s all for the week!
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