THE BLOG
05/01/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

First Ag-Gag, Now the Name Game

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Industrialized animal agribusiness is facing a crisis, and its leaders, having failed to accept that factory farming practices are actually at the root of the problem, are frantically looking in every direction for quick fixes. While they procrastinate, they are only digging a deeper hole for themselves.

Stunned by repeated whistleblowing exposés revealing inhumane treatment of animals throughout the meat, egg and dairy industries, big ag lobbyists are working to enact "ag-gag" laws criminalizing these undercover investigations. In short, they're working to prevent Americans from finding out about animal abuse, rather than working to prevent the abuse. They may not be literally shooting the messenger, but they do want to imprison her.

Similarly, a new and revealing column by pork industry veteran Linden Olson unashamedly advises fellow producers to simply change the way they talk about their most abusive practices, rather than changing the practices themselves.

For example, a standard pork industry practice is to lock breeding pigs -- 500-pound, social, intelligent animals -- inside two-foot-wide cages where they're immobilized, unable even to turn around for nearly their entire lives. Nine states have outlawed these cages and more than 50 of the world's largest food companies are in the process of banning them from their pork supply chains. But rather than encourage producers to embrace animal welfare reforms, such as using higher-welfare practices already utilized by many family farmers, Olson's recommendation is simply to stop calling the cages "gestation crates" -- which they've been called for decades -- and start referring to them as "individual maternity pens." Here again, we see agribusiness fail to understand the root of its crisis.

According to Olson, it's not just extreme confinement practices that need an extreme makeover: The industry "harvests" animals rather than slaughters them; animals are "neutered," rather than castrated without pain relief; and confinement barns in which animals never set foot on a blade of grass are really just "environmentally controlled housing."

Olson will likely find a sympathetic ear at the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. In a survey it commissioned, pollsters found that the ag industry's go-to messages just aren't resonating with consumers. Rather than discussing what factory farming actually does to animals, the pollster simply "advised not going into a lot of detail about current practices when talking to consumers as it may generate more concern than necessary."

How much concern is "necessary," though, when billions of chickens, pigs, turkeys and other animals are raised in systems so inhumane, merely discussing it makes people uncomfortable enough that Orwellian euphemisms like "individual maternity pens" and "harvest" are being pushed as so-called solutions? How much concern is "necessary" when standard meat industry practices are so abusive that your industry wants to make it a crime simply to photograph them?

Big Ag is trying to do everything it can to keep Americans in the dark about how it abuses animals. Whether through ag-gag laws to prevent videos of animal abuse from surfacing or through playing the name game, this is an industry that knows it has a lot to hide.

After all, "one of the best things modern animal agriculture has going for it is that most people...haven't a clue how animals are raised and processed," wrote an editor of the Journal of Animal Science in an animal agriculture textbook. He aptly concluded, "For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better."