How The New York Times’ Exposé of the Meat Research Center is Deceiving Readers… and Hurting Animals
DxE’s lead investigator explains how the Times’ grossly misleading reporting reinforces three myths about animal agriculture.
by Wayne Hsiung
Yesterday, The New York Times published an article about a little known government program in Nebraska -- the Meat Animal Research Center -- with horrifying stories of abuse, including baby animals starved or crushed, animals subjected to genital mutilation, and countless other animals suffering from diseases such as mastitis. The article quickly became one of the most shared on the Times’ site, and the world collectively gasped at the animal cruelty exposed by the Times.
So why did I -- as someone who has spent the better part of 15 years fighting for the animals we use for food often at the very places where they are being held captive or killed -- find myself shaking my head, laughing, or even crying out in outrage while reading the piece? It was not just because the article (and its Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Moss) demonstrated a startling ignorance of animal agriculture, though that ignorance was aptly shown. No, I found myself reacting so negatively because the article’s focus on an obscure research center served to mask the far more insidious systemic problem: namely, that violence against animals is everywhere, including at the Times’ favorite grocer (and advertiser) Whole Foods. Indeed, the Times’ shockingly sloppy reporting on the issue propagates three dangerous myths.
Myth #1: Premature death is an unusual problem in animal agriculture. Slaughter, in turn, is humane and well regulated.
The Times writes that its investigation has shown that animals at the Meat Research Center are “subjected to illness, pain and premature death.” It uses a number of powerful stories to illustrate this point -- including a little lamb who was sick and left to starve in a grassy field -- and mentions that “calves have been dying at high rates since 1984, and the easy care lambs for 10 years.” In contrast, the Times writes, “[t]he center’s parent agency, the Agriculture Department, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories.” The reader is left with the impression that, if not for the insidious Meat Research Center, animals would have the opportunity to live their lives out peacefully! (Indeed, even at the Center, it appears the problem of “premature death” has only existed since 1984.)
Left unspoken: all animals in the agricultural system are victims of “premature death.” Chickens are killed at six weeks. Pigs at six months. Cows at 1.5 years. Hens such as Mei Hua, who we rescued from an egg farm, are killed at around 2 years. In all cases, the animals are still juveniles when their lives are ended -- both chronologically and in terms of physical and psychological characteristics. Moreover, the “strict” policing of slaughterhouses that the Times article describes is in fact an industry-run charade. Nearly two thirds of slaughterhouses systematically fail to properly stun animals, leaving them screaming in pain and terror as their bodies are torn to pieces on the slaughter line. And the minimal requirements of the Humane Slaughter Act -- which does not cover poultry -- are hardly even enforced. Investigators have relayed stories of showing up at facilities they are legally obligated to inspect… and simply being refused access to the facility. This is the natural result, of course, when the Department of Agriculture is a revolving door for industry executives.
None of this even begins to address the millions of animals who die from starvation, disease, or sheer neglect even before they get to slaughter. Anyone who (unlike the Times reporters) had actually been to an animal farm would recognize this, as the “premature death” toll is quite apparent from the corpses littered everywhere on the premises. The hen we rescued from a Whole Foods farm, Mei Hua, would have been another such victim if we had not arrived on the scene and rushed her to emergency medical care.
Myth #2: Mutilation, confinement, and other abusive practices are unusual in animal production.
The Times similarly recounts horrific stories of abuse at the Meat Research Center, including disease, mutilation, and confinement. “A single, treatable malady — mastitis, a painful infection of the udder — has killed more than 625,” the writer explains. “[P]regnant ewes were injected with so much of the male hormone testosterone that it began to deform their babies’ genitals, making urination difficult… An animal manager, Devin M. Gandy, complained in 2012 that swine were kept in pens so small, 4 feet by 4 feet, that they appeared to violate basic rules on animal care.” Perhaps the most terrifying example of abuse is the story of a “young cow, a teenager” who was tied down and subjected to repeated sexual assault by “six bulls.”
The Times, once again, makes it seem as if all of these practices are unusual forms of abuse. (After all, there would be no “story” otherwise.) In fact, the exact practices condemned by the Times are routine practices in animal agriculture, including on so-called humane farms. For example:
- While the author condemns the death of 625 cows from mastitis (a painful infection of the udders caused by overmilking), out of 580,000 animals housed by the facility since 1985, hundreds of thousands of dairy cows die from the exact condition every year, including on “humane farms.” Indeed, the annual death/cull rate from the condition -- which some reports have found to be as high as one third of the entire herd annually -- is so high that all dairy cows (even those who have no immediate medical emergency) are slaughtered at around five years. Their bodies are too broken for them to go on.
- The Times expresses horror at “deformed genitals” but fails to acknowledge that male pigs and cows go through genital mutilation -- castration without anesthetic -- as routine practice on all farms. Once again, this is allowed by every “humane” certification standard, including Certified Humane, GAP, and Animal Welfare Approved, which have all been enthusiastically recommended by the Times’ writers in prior articles.
- The Times decries the extreme confinement of pigs at the research center but fails to point out that Whole Foods supplier Niman Ranch, which loves to brag about how its pigs are raised “outdoors or in deeply-bedded pens,” permits animals to be raised in as little as one third of the space (5 square feet compared to 16 square feet) allotted for the pigs by the research center. (Imagine a 200 pound man living his entire life in a bathtub. This is the reality of Whole Foods' "humane" farms.)
- Finally, while the Times recounts with horror the story of a “teenager” who is subjected to repeated sexual assault, it completely ignores the fact that recto-vaginal assault, in which a man violently inserts his arm into a young cow's anus and vagina simultaneously, is the standard method of insemination for all 9 million dairy cows in this country. You can see for yourself (WARNING: GRAPHIC LINK) the fear and pain this practice causes the animals. (The farmer in the video, which was industry-produced, himself acknowledges the fear the animal feels as she is about to be violated.)
If even more horrific practices are standard practice for the entire industry, why is the Times focusing its ire on an obscure research center that no one has ever heard of?
Well, that brings us to the next myth:
Myth #3: Industry is making rapid progress in improving animal welfare.
I previously noted that the Times has a dual interest in promoting the myth of humane animal agriculture. First, it knows what its readers want to hear. In the increasingly polarized, audience-driven world of news media (Fox News, etc.), this creates a strong incentive to distort facts to serve the readers’ pre-existing worldview. None of the Times’ readers want to hear about the cruelty inherent to eating animals, so the Times ignores it completely. Second, the Times has a massive financial stake in maintaining advertising from the fastest-growing and most media savvy corporations in the world, i.e. humanewashers such as Chipotle and Whole Foods.
It should come as little surprise to those of us who have observed the Times’ shameful reporting on animal issues, then, that it bends over backwards to defend the prominent name brands of animal agriculture:
Last January, Tyson Foods told its suppliers to start using pain medicine when they castrate or remove the tails of pigs, and to stop putting pigs in pens so small they cannot move. Whole Foods and some other supermarkets are refusing to buy fresh meat from sources that do not meet their standards for animal welfare.
Sounds great, right? Except there are some disturbing holes. The reference to Tyson, for example, fails to point out that the letter sent to suppliers (a direct response to an undercover video showcasing horrific abuse of pigs) did not impose any actual requirements. It merely “encouraged” and “supported” such changes, which, of course, the entire industry has been doing for the past 10,000 years. (When was the last time an industry rep admitted that he supported abuse?) Whole Foods, in turn, is described as “refusing to buy” from sources that fail to meet their standards, but the Times fails to point out that 93% of the funding for the “independent” Global Animal Partnership -- the source of Whole Foods’ standards -- is, you guessed it, provided by Whole Foods itself. The one and only time Whole Foods’ standards have actually been independently scrutinized -- by DxE’s recent investigation -- exposed the moral and factual fraud embedded in Whole Foods’ entire humane meat mythology. And yet, far from “refusing to buy,” the company doubled down on its supplier, a farm run by a man who has publicly stated that he does not believe in the existence of “happy chickens.”
Indeed, by any objective measure, the Meat Research Center is doing far better than the Tysons and Whole Foods of the world. For example, while the institute is condemned for having insufficient veterinary staff for the 30,000 or so animals on site, animals in agricultural facilities never receive any veterinary care at all. Moreover, while the institute absolutely is involved in shameful neglect of animals -- abandoning some to die from predator attacks or inclement weather -- the green pastures at the center are light years better than the images we took from a “certified humane” Whole Foods farm, where the animals were cramped in such filthy, disease-ridden conditions that we had to hold our breath every time we went in. And while the Times rightly accuses the institute of emphasizing profit over pain -- citing internal documents where pain is mentioned 2 times and profit over 100 --- the mere acknowledgment that animals are feeling creatures is better than the Whole Foods farmer who disturbingly believes that chickens cannot feel pain at all.
What, exactly, is going on? Why would the Times ignore the mountain for the molehill?
There are three possible explanations. .
The first and most charitable explanation is that the reporter and editors are simply ignorant. While the Times is the gold standard for journalism, our recent experience with the Times shows that its reporters are surprisingly sloppy -- misquoting, making clear factual errors, and otherwise stumbling in the face of press deadlines.
The second explanation is the one that I offered previously: that the Times is bowing to financial pressure and incentives. It’s worth noting that this bias need not be insidious or even intentional. Ample psychological research shows that people go out of their way to believe things that serve their self interest. So, for example, if a Whole Foods CEO were to make a call to the Times’ publisher, explaining why allegations against the company were false, the publisher would be inclined to believe his story. After all, millions of dollars might be at stake in this belief. In contrast, the Meat Research Center is an obscure institute that has no advertising dollars. Indeed, attacking the “unnatural” practices at the center will very likely push people to seek out “natural” alternatives at Whole Foods and Chipotle -- the Times’ partners in crime.
The third and most likely explanation, however, is the most terrifying. Perhaps the reporter did actually make a good faith effort at due diligence. And perhaps the Times isn't unduly influenced by financial pressure. Instead, perhaps they have so normalized the violence against animals in agriculture that they can’t even see it as violence. The distinctive feature of this investigation, after all, is not the violence -- far more gruesome practices are routine in animal farming -- but rather that it’s occurring in the context of “experiments.” Follow-up coverage of the Times’ story (see, e.g., here and here) seems to also emphasize this point. The logical and moral distinction between torturing animals for science, on the one hand, or gustatory pleasure, on the other, is of course completely arbitrary. But even the typical New York Times reporter (or reader) may not be willing to acknowledge this, since it might implicate their own behavior.
What's the moral of the story? The Times' incredible efforts to ignore or even disguise violence that's happening right in front of their eyes shows us that we can’t just show people the violence. (They’ve already seen it, and are quick to dismiss it so long as it’s “normal.”) We have to make our own media, and craft our own stories -- through facebook, youtube, twitter, and every other platform we have -- in a way that interprets the violence as, well, violence. We have to empower critical voices with less bias and more knowledge, such as James McWilliams’ The Daily Pitchfork. And above all, instead of relying on Big Media alone, we have to inspire people on the ground to be change agents in their own communities. Big Media will eventually come around, but only if we force the issue onto the table and point out the absurdities in the entire system. And that is precisely why we at DxE take nonviolent direct action.