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How an animal rights group invented a scandal and the media’s response
Late last month, the animal rights group Mercy For Animals (MFA) released a video shot on an Ohio veal farm that received widespread media attention.
The video of the farm was accompanied by a call for an end to the traditional veal production practice of tethering calves in individual stalls.
MFA called a news conference to show its “undercover” and “covert footage,” which turned out to consist of one of their operatives simply walking through barns operated by Buckeye Veal.
Calves in the video appeared curious, tame, relatively clean, healthy and even received veterinary care in one of the scenes.
The low-quality video includes some scenes in color and others in black and white, which gives an ominous mood to the images.
The video was narrated by former Price is Right host Bob Barker and was spliced together with footage of widely criticized animal treatment from other facilities including a New York dairy, a Vermont slaughterhouse and the Conklin dairy farm, where an employee was fired shortly before being charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty.
Given the heightened attention toward animal care issues in Ohio, it’s not surprising that the media sought to cover the announcement.
But before the video’s release, some media outlets readily accepted MFA’s claims of “horrific” animal treatment, with one news station posting MFA’s news release as if it were an independent news article. Television stations trumped up the “new allegations of farm animal abuse” by showing old footage from the Conklin farm.
Other news outlets stuck with the facts and ran articles under less sensationalized headlines.
The good news for farmers is that claims made by MFA at their press conference, which was posted on YouTube by reporter Marc Kovac, drew challenges from journalists.
For example, the MFA spokesperson accused the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board of “dragging their feet” on veal production standards. But through several exchanges with reporters, she appeared to have had little knowledge of the board’s work.
(The Q&A portion can be viewed at 3:10 into this video from Kovac.)
When a reporter asked if MFA had made its concerns known to the board, the MFA spokesperson replied that the group sent a letter that morning – a day after it announced the press conference.
Reporter: “So this is the first contact you’ve had with them to ask about it?”
MFA Spokesperson: “Correct.”
One reporter notes that the Livestock Care Standards Board has been working on veal calf standards.
MFA Spokesperson: “That’s something I’m not aware of.”
One of the board’s first actions was to make the study of veal production methods a priority.
The veal sub-committee has been very active and is meeting regularly. It is expected to make recommendations to the board for its consideration in the near future.
The MFA spokesperson also threatened to use the signatures gathered for this year’s called-off ballot initiative to put the issue back before voters.
Reporter: “But you don’t have possession of the 500,00 signatures do you?”
MFA Spokesperson: “Mercy for Animals does not have possesion."
“Honestly, what’s new today, what's new about this?” a reporter asks.
Another tries to clarify why Buckeye Veal was targeted, given that it has already committed to transitioning its animals to group housing.
“We’d like to see that in writing,” said the MFA spokesperson at one point.
In a written statement, Buckeye Veal had said it plans to have all of its calves in group housing by 2013 and that the barns shown in the video, which was several months old, are in the process of being converted.
When a reporter pressed the MFA spokesperson on whether MFA would support group housing or if they were against all veal production, she says that “even executed with the highest standards, raising veal is inherently cruel.” She also acknowledged the group’s support for veganism.
The news media also reached out to other sources including Ohio Farm Bureau and members of the Livestock Care Standards Board to get the rest of the story.
MFA, which appeared to have gained media credibility on the heels of the Conklin dairy farm video, raised skepticism from reporters with their latest effort. However, much of the coverage likely reinforced negative feelings toward agriculture among consumers who didn’t look past the headlines and sound bites.
Despite Buckeye Veal exceeding industry standards, food-retailer Costco sought to avoid backlash by condemning the farm and vowing to change its purchasing practices.