Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Profits before Lives

This week, the Chicago animal rights group Mercy for Animals released a chilling undercover video showing workers at Conklin Dairy Farms in Plain City, Ohio kicking, stomping, stabbing and beating dairy cows and their calves. This video, and the countless other videos, reports, and materials about the lives of dairy cattle (and their infant sons, who become veal calves), is vivid proof of the brutalities of the dairy industry.

Yet for industry apologists, that's not the case at all. If anything, Mercy for Animals' investigation only demonstrates that there are a few "bad apples" in every industry or workplace, and that the actions of these few workers do not reflect on the industry as a whole. In Conklin's case, the employee featured in the video was fired by the company, and remaining employees will be retrained, according to a company statement.

This response, which follows undercover investigations conducted at slaughterhouses, biomedical labs, circuses, zoos, pig, poultry, egg, and dairy farms, and even pet stores, is typical of industries trying to protect their image and maintain their profits.

But it's not just the animal exploitation industries which offer such automatic, predictable responses when they are caught engaged in such abuse. Whether it's British Petroleum after the recent (and ongoing) massive oil spill in the Gulf or Massey Energy after the April mine explosion, companies routinely take the position that "mistakes were made" which led to these deadly disasters, and that those mistakes should not reflect negatively on the companies.

Only in the left wing media is serious attention paid to the ways that companies like Massey, BP, or dairy, poultry or pig farms routinely engage in practices which put humans, animals, or the environment at risk. While mine explosions or oil rig explosions may be accidental, in the sense that no one intended for those tragedies to occur, and while the employee manuals at poultry or dairy farms may not require employees to beat animals, these occurrences are not aberrations; they are standard and expected occurrences for industries which put profits above worker or animal safety.

Just this week, documents surfaced that showed that British Petroleum used a cost benefit analysis in 2002 in order to help them decide what kind of housing to build for its workers at a Texas refinery-inexpensive trailer homes which would have no chance of surviving a refinery blast, or concrete and steel housing which would cost ten times as much, but could withstand such a blast. The document, which used the "three little pigs" fairy tale (and was even illustrated with drawings of three pigs) as an analogy, recommended the cheaper housing. Another BP document put a ten million dollar value on the workers' lives (based on estimated costs incurred in possible lawsuits) and even with that figure, the cost of cheaper housing combined with the potential lawsuits was still recommended over the more expensive housing. Three years later, the refinery caught fire and 15 workers (most of whom were in the trailers) were killed and 170 others injured.

This week, BP responded to these documents by assuring the public that BP takes worker safety seriously, and that "those documents are several years old." Just a few bad apples, and not at all indicative of the cost-control measures that BP takes on a daily basis. Yet it appears that BP is continuing to put cost-savings (and profits) above safety. The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion may well have been prevented had BP installed a $50,000 acoustic trigger which would have shut off the well when the explosion occurred. A $50,000 savings in exchange for 11 worker lives, and an oil spill that is still, five weeks out, gushing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf, threatening the lives of marine plants and animals for decades-or centuries-to come.

Animal industries too, maximize profits by cutting costs, and usually those costs are borne by the animals themselves, who endure living conditions which are unceasingly brutal. Activities that could provide pleasure--like a soft bed, fresh air, grass, the ability to run and play, the ability to nurse and raise one's offspring--are disallowed because they don't add to the company's bottom line. Even beating and stabbing animals at farms and slaughterhouses makes economic sense--when workers are under pressure to meet unreasonable quotas, they often respond by beating the animals to make them move faster.

Ultimately, the worker at the center of the Conklin Dairy Farm abuse scandal will be arrested and will face prosecution for his actions. Whether he will pay a penalty of any kind is questionable, given the scanty legal protection for farm animals in this country. But regardless of the price paid by this one man, this one "bad apple," and regardless of his motivations, dairy farms like Conklin will continue to put profits above animal welfare. Because it just makes economic sense.