By: Janet Riley

How many of us have seen the brilliant sleight of hand of a good magician as he declared, “now you see it, now you don’t?”  As we listen to his words, we believe what he is telling us we are seeing — as opposed to what we truly see.

This same phenomenon can occur as we watch some undercover videos shot by animal rights groups.  There’s no question that some videos have captured practices that should not have occurred — or be tolerated.  But sometimes, the picture we see may not tell the full story.    When ominous music plays and a narrator with a sad voice tells us what we are seeing, it’s can be easy to believe their words instead of our own eyes or our brain.  As we watch these edited videos, we must always ask ourselves, “What footage did they remove and how might that have changed my perception?”

Imagine if you saw a video of a nurse in a nursing home preparing an injection for a patient.  Imagine the nurse drops the syringe and then retrieves it.  Imagine you next see her injecting the patient.  Is it possible (and even likely) that she discarded the syringe and retrieved a new one, but that scene was edited out?  Now imagine how many practices – from food production to medicine to childcare – could be distorted through the “magic” of editing.

Dr. Temple Grandin has evaluated a lot of undercover videos and one thing I’ve learned from her is the need to watch the video at least three or four times — and watch half of those times with the sound off so that your eyes aren’t being misled by your ears.   Look for footage that isn’t continuous and consider what might have been removed, like footage showing actions to fix what is happening.

In my 25 years in the meat industry, I’ve seen countless undercover videos shot in meat plants and livestock operations misrepresent what actually happened through simple editing. When you watch these videos,  ask yourself a view questions:

  • Is there a chance that footage that has been removed by editing might change how some or all of the situations in the video appear?
  • When a video suggests that an animal wasn’t effectively stunned, does the clip allow us to see the animal clearly?  And does it allow us to see any actions that may have occurred immediately after that might have depicted an employee taking follow-up corrective actions, like using a back-up stunner promptly?
  • When a video suggests that an animal was improperly stunned and then cuts to an animal that is clearly conscious, was that the same animal, or a different one?
  • When a video focuses on leg kicking after an animal has been stunned and suggests that the animal is conscious, is it possible that the kicking is actually normal, uncoordinated spinal activity that occurs after stunning?
  • Are there any other signs of signs of consciousness, like natural blinking (not fixed, open eyes), a curled tongue, vocalizations or a coordinated effort to right itself?  Compare the footage to the Temple Grandin-narrated Glass Walls videos available on the Meat News Network where she shows normal, uncoordinated movement that can be misinterpreted and then draw your conclusions.

Problems have occurred in plants and during the last 20 years and the industry has earned some black eyes.  Problems may occur in the future, much as we work to prevent them.  But at the same time, the industry has made tremendous progress by implementing an audit program, remote video auditing, and embracing training opportunities like our annual conference.

Legitimate disregard for animal welfare must not be tolerated.  But at the same time, meat plants have earned the right to have edited, undercover videos viewed with a critical eye – and the sound turned down – before a judgment is made.  Otherwise, what we think we see may really be “video sleight of hand” delivered via good editing and persuasive narration.

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