UNDERCOVER animal rights operatives were the focus of a July 31 episode of the National Geographic Channel's (NatGeo) television series "Inside: Secret America," and despite representation from the agriculture industry, the program largely focused on the efforts of hidden camera filmmakers on livestock operations.
The idea was originally pitched by the television producers as an expose of seemingly deceptive practices and extreme tactics employed by activist groups, but many in agriculture viewed the episode as far more favorable to the activists than to the farmers they target.
Much of the episode focused on "Pete," an undercover operative working for Mercy for Animals (MFA), an animal rights group closely associated with undercover video operations.
Pete recounted his many exploits over several years of obtaining employment and filming instances of alleged animal cruelty on farms, including filming common animal husbandry practices such as castration and tail docking.
Pete and an MFA spokesman were countered on the program by Kay Johnson Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a coalition of farmer organizations and industry stakeholders.
The NatGeo producers approached the alliance earlier in the year, and Johnson Smith talked with the program's host Mariana van Zeller about the real motivations behind the animal rights movement.
"It's important to engage with journalists, even on such controversial topics, so that agriculture's story isn't told by its detractors," Johnson Smith said after the February filming. "The public really doesn't have any firsthand knowledge about how food is produced, so they're very susceptible to videos presented by activist groups."
Despite the show's heavy focus on Pete, the alliance reiterated that its purpose and focus is to represent and support the animal agriculture industry's important role in the U.S. economy and food supply.
Moreover, the alliance and other industry stakeholders noted the swift response to the program from farmers and ranchers via social media.
"Though we were disappointed with the lack of balance given to representatives for animal agriculture, we were awed and impressed by the conversations that took place during and after the show's airing on social media," the alliance told Feedstuffs. "Farmers and ranchers were engaging with other viewers, offering to answer questions and sharing real insights into farm life. We hope these conversations can continue in the days and weeks to come and are glad that those engaged on social media attempted to correct much of the misinformation presented on the show."
Several industry spokespeople echoed those sentiments and noted that in tracking the overall response to the program, its airing was largely a non-event for the industry.
"All the metrics point to it not being widely discussed, so we won't be talking about it," National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. director of communications Chase Adams said. "We're in the process of reaching out to the show's producers to ensure that they have an accurate view of agriculture, as opposed to the skewed version they decided to depict."
Other industry insiders agreed with Adams' assessment and reiterated that farmers' online efforts to answer consumer questions and provide firsthand knowledge of animal agriculture practices likely stemmed any potential backlash from the episode.
'Ag gag' legislation
One of the topics discussed during the NatGeo episode was the creation of legislation to thwart deceptive undercover filmmaking by animal rights activists. These so-called "ag gag" bills are pending in several states and have passed in six states, including North Dakota, Montana and Kansas last year.
In promoting the episode online, NatGeo's producers described activists' videos as "disturbing — animal cruelty and abuse at the hands of food industry workers and research technicians."
"While activists push for stricter enforcement of animal cruelty laws and increased criminal prosecutions against offenders, industry executives and lawmakers are mounting their own counterattack," the producers added.
Agricultural organizations in favor of such bills, on the other hand, describe them as "farm protection measures" and contend that activists are essentially committing fraud by obtaining employment on farms under false pretenses and producing highly edited video clips claiming that widely accepted practices — such as individual sow housing or castration of male animals — are examples of animal abuse.
In a July press release, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hailed the defeat of 11 "anti-whistleblower" bills introduced across the country during the first half of the year.
Bills are still pending in many states, while others have been voted down by state legislatures.
A lawsuit was filed last month in Utah challenging the constitutionality of a 2012 law that makes it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses, such as by providing inaccurate information on a job application.