COVID-19 crisis highlights big meat companies’ lack of openness

Meat companies’ evasive language about what is happening to animals during the COVID-19 crisis is part of a larger pattern that suppresses open debate about the ethical costs of food production in the U.S.

SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Pigs being transported to slaughter. Canada, 2012.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Big meat companies have always shrouded their inhumane practices in colorless euphemisms, using words like “harvest” and “process” to refer to the slaughter of almost 10 billion farm animals in the U.S. every year. In the last few months, the industry has had to stretch language in new ways to hide the exact details of their actions.

The COVID-19 crisis has played havoc with factory farming’s relentless raise-and-kill operations. Thousands of meatpacking and processing workers have been infected with the coronavirus, leading to the closing down of dozens of slaughterhouses. The animals destined for those slaughterhouses have had nowhere to go, and farmers have killed millions of animals, often in crude and cruel ways, including shooting, suffocation, and even heating the animals to death. Grown animals, as well as born and unborn baby animals, have been slaughtered. Farmers are ill-prepared to carry out this gruesome task, and animals are suffering horribly as a result.

In their rare statements about this consequence of the COVID-19 crisis, the large meat companies use euphemisms to obscure the cruel deaths happening at their behest. Allen Harim Foods noted in a letter to farmers that the company was no longer able to “harvest” the usual number of birds and would begin “depopulating” the flocks. The CEO of Tyson Foods Noel White said in May during the company’s second quarter 2020 earnings conference call that this year’s profit for livestock suppliers would partly depend on “liquidation” levels, his word for the killing of pigs on farms instead of being butchered in slaughterhouses. A group president for Tyson Fresh Meats Steve Stouffer in an extreme understatement in late April noted that a plant closure in Washington state would “present problems to farmers who have no place to take their livestock,” further explaining that “it’s a complicated situation across the supply chain.” The meat industry’s refusal to use everyday words like “abort,” “suffocate,” “shoot,” “electrocute,” and “drown” prevents the public from understanding exactly what is happening to these animals.

Euphemisms are part and parcel of how meat companies communicate, not just during crises. Perdue Farms’ website explains that chickens are killed by a “mild electric shock,” failing to point out that the chickens, after being shackled by their feet and hung upside down, are sent on a conveyor belt through an electrified water-bath to their deaths. Pilgrim’s Global notes that pigs are “stunned,” avoiding the word “suffocated.” The beef industry’s phrase “knocking process” actually involves killing cows by shooting them in the forehead. In their rare public references to slaughter techniques, meat companies use language that is spare and neutral to the extreme, devoid of any reference to animals’ stress and pain.

These same companies spend millions of dollars every year to keep their practices veiled from the public. Influenced by meat company lobbyists, many state legislatures have passed what are known as “ag-gag” laws, which criminalize taking photos or videos of animals in agricultural operations without permission. The companies know what studies and polls have shown that people who watch videos and documentaries of factory farming conditions and abuses decrease their meat consumption, in some cases giving up meat entirely.

Meat companies know that the majority of Americans don’t like to think about the cruelty inherent in factory farming, as it would lead to them being torn between their compassion for animals and their desire to eat meat. According to a 2017 poll, 49 percent of U.S. adults support a ban on factory farming. Even so, only 4 percent of Americans completely refrain from eating meat. A research team in Massachusetts found that if participants were given two identical meat samples but were told that one came from a “factory farm,” participants rated the supposed “factory farm” sample lower in smell, flavor, and overall pleasantness—in other words, the subjects got a bad taste in their mouths. It’s no surprise that meat companies avoid straightforward descriptions of what they do, given the fragile cognitive balancing act required for continued meat consumption.

Whatever meat executives may say, people know that animals aren’t “inventory,” and killing them isn’t “processing.” Beyond vague suspicions, though, most consumers don’t know the details, thanks to ag-gag laws and the industry’s refusal to speak plainly about its practices. The COVID-19 crisis has shown a light on meat companies’ refusal to take accountability for their role in this animal welfare tragedy and discuss it openly. Serious public debate about factory farming and its far-reaching consequences on animals and the environment will remain impossible as long as mega meat companies are allowed to hide what they do by using euphemisms to describe the actual nature of animal abuse that takes place in such meatpacking and processing plants.


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