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Crouser discusses how CFI counters undercover videos
By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
OCEAN CITY, Md. (Oct. 27, 2015) — When an undercover video by an activeist group alleging animal abuse by an activist group is released, the Center for Food Integrity rushes to convene a panel of experts to explain to media and consumers what may or may not be happening in the videos.
“We’ve actually seen an increase in poultry operations that are being targeted especially in the past year,” the CFI’s Mark Crouser told attendees at the recent National Meeting on Poultry Health, Processing and Live Production. “I can’t tell you what that is, if they’re easier to access for whatever the reason, I don’t know.
“That really puts the onus on us to be doing right in those operations and make sure we’ve got proper training and oversight in our barns.”
The issue hit close to home in July when an animal rights group alleged animal abuse in the release of video clips of a Sussex County, Del., farm it had taken months earlier.
Crouser said in some states, the industry’s response to these types of videos has been to pass legislation banning videotaping on farms without the owners permission. But, he added, these so-called ag-gag laws don’t send a positive message to consumers.
“Unfortunately what that tells consumers is we don’t have anything to hide in our production practices but it’s none of your business,” he said. “That’s sending consumers the wrong message. Consumers are the ones choosing which products to buy. When we’re sending that message it’s really counter to building consumer trust.”
Once the center hears an activist video is about to be released, Crouser said it readies an animal care review panel to watch and issue an independent report on the video within 48 hours to stay relevant both in the news cycle and with food companies that might feel pressure to respond.
He added when the center is notified about a video, it requests from the group a copy of all the video taken, not just what’s released to media.
“We’ll contact them directly and ask for the full unedited version. We’ve never received a single response,” he said.
The center pulls from a group of about 20 experts including animals scientists, ethicists and veterinarians to form its panels for dairy, pork and poultry. Crouser said the videos are often heavily edited — sometimes staged — with short segments and show very little context as to what is happening and why a practice is used.
“They’re cut in a way to portray a message that the group wants to communicate,” he said of the videos. “There could be a single bad practice but then it’s lumped together with other scientifically verified practices to make everything look really bad to consumers who are otherwise pretty unfamiliar with how chicken is produced today.”
Crouser said the center has cataloged more than 60 organizations making undercover videos in the last ten years.
“The reason why we’re seeing more and more and more of these investigations is because it works,” he said. “It’s highly successful. It’s particularly successful because what they do is not only link what they see as animal mistreatment to specific producers but they link them to larger processors, to retailers, to restaurants so we see a lot of pressure going on to alter their production practices.”
Dr. Charles L. Hofacre, professor and director of clinical services at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, participates on the poultry panel, which he said has brought some harassment including mail spattered with red paint and “ugly phone calls.”
He told the meeting attendees they are in a good position to stop questionable behavior on farms and processing facilities so groups don’t have material to videotape in the first place.
“What matters is that we’ve had a failure to give them something to videotape,” Hofacre said. “You can see, do and respond and let management know that something just doesn’t look right. That way we don’t end up having one of these videos.”
He said trying to view things from the perspective of the consumer with little or no experience inside modern animal production, can help.
“Don’t look at it as a poultry production person who’s been doing this the last 20 years or 10 years or five years and saying ‘this is normal,’” Hofacre said. “If something doesn’t look right then stop and think about it.”
Both Crouser and Hofacre emphasized the need to face consumer questions head-on and discuss them openly.
“It’s incumbent upon us to ‘open up the barn doors’ and talk about our practices,” Crouser said.