Last April, state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, was one of the authors of a bill that would have made it illegal for someone to enter a farm or animal-producing facility and take videos or photos without the permission of the owner. The bill didn't get anywhere, in part because a lot of people thought it would be overturned as being unconstitutional.
The bill, had it passed, would have prevented animal rights activists from taking jobs with beef, hog and poultry producers for the purpose of exposing cruelty to animals, but as written it could have also prevented the type of investigative journalism that has transformed the meat industry for the better. For that reason, I opposed it.
Just a few months after Urdahl's bill failed, the poultry farm of one of his Sunday school students is in jeopardy because of a devastating video shot on her property.
A member of the Chicago-based animal rights group Mercy for Animals got a job at Sparboe Farms in Litchfield this summer and shot secret video. The footage is gruesome, it is disturbing and it is difficult to see days before we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.
It is also a very common depiction of how we Americans get our food.
Because of that video, McDonald's, Target, Byerlys and Lunds have dropped Sparboe as an egg supplier. So now, McDonald's and Target will buy their eggs from another producer who most likely does business pretty much the same way as Sparboe, and the Minnesota company may have to decide how many of its 600 employees to lay off.
To Urdahl, that seems unfair.
"Sparboe is not different from anybody else in the industry, like it or not," said Urdahl. "Eggs come from farms, not the grocery store. I think [Mercy] is using Sparboe as a scapegoat to take down the industry."
Paul Shapiro, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, agrees that much of the footage shot at Sparboe could have been shot anywhere. But Shapiro believes that's exactly why the video is important.
"Few people contemplate the animal when they sit down to dinner," said Shapiro. "But the more people learn about these practices, the greater the outrage will be. Some practices are so inhumane they are way out of step with the values and morals mainstream Americans hold."
The worst abuses in the video, such as an employee swinging a chicken on a chain, appear to be individual cases of cruelty done out of the sight of management. Urdahl says it's also unfair that a few bad employees can threaten a company's future. "Every company has bad employees," he said.
The other stuff -- over-crowded cages, burning off the beaks of chicks so they won't peck each other -- are the norm, Shapiro agrees.
"The industry standard for space is 67 square inches. A piece of paper is 90 square inches," Shapiro said. "It is difficult to imagine a more horrible existence."
But Sparboe is different in one significant way, Shapiro said. In July, the Humane Society negotiated a deal with United Egg Producers, which represents the majority of egg producers in the country. The agreement calls for numerous improvements of conditions for chickens, including doubling the amount of space they get. Some improvements were immediate, others will allow producers to phase them in over the years.
"Sparboe is the only significant producer that does not support [the change], but actively fights against it," said Shapiro.
Urdahl wanted to know why Mercy didn't gather video, then sit down with Sparboe representatives to make changes instead of going public and potentially ruining the company, so I asked Daniel Hauff, director of investigations for the group.
"Because these are top-down, company-wide policy problems," said Hauff. "They know they have cages full of excrement, they know about abuses. This is how they do it at Sparboe, and without the pressure of these large companies they wouldn't change anything."
As for the contention that companies can't afford to go cage-free, Hauff and Shapiro point to Europe, which is doing exactly that. Germany is already largely cage-free. Also, broiler chickens are mostly raised outside cages in the United States, they say, proving the practice is feasible.
Hauff, Shapiro and Urdahl agree on one thing: "Americans demand cheap food," said Urdahl. So McDonald's demands cheap eggs, and Sparboe finds ways to provide them.
"And that's why these investigations are so important," said Hauff. "So that Americans can see what we are paying people to do to these animals."