Today I saw an interesting talk about public reaction to the Humane Society (HSUS) video of cruel treatment of cattle at the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in Chino, California. As you may recall, someone from the Humane Society took a job at the plant and secretly videotaped the practices there for about four months. In late January, 2008, HSUS released the video. Here is a video from the HSUS website that shows images from the original video footage (and yes, it’s a disturbing video, even by my Oklahoma-ranch-raised standards):
The talk I saw today, titled “Westland/Hallmark: When You Don’t Care Enough to Send the Very Best,” by David Holt and Michelle R. Worosz (presented at the 71st Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in Manchester, NH) provided an interesting analysis of how issues get framed in the public. The HSUS undertook this investigation, and released the video, primarily because of concerns about animal cruelty and the mistreatment of cattle, particularly those that could not stand or move on their own.
But as sociologists studying framing and social movements have often noted, once an issue gets out there, organizations can’t control what the public, lawmakers, or the media will make of it, and this case is a good example. Once the news broke, what came to the forefront were food safety issues, particularly the idea that so-called “downer cows” (that is, cows that can’t stand or walk on their own) might have made it into the food supply. Downer cows are a concern because of the (very small) risk that they might be suffering neurological damage from BSE, or Mad Cow disease. After an outcry several years ago downer cows were barred from human consumption, but back in 2007 the USDA quietly relaxed the standards so that downer cows can be slaughtered for human consumption if a Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) veterinarian inspects and passes them.
Anyway, it turns out that this particular meat processor was a major supplier of beef to the nation’s school lunch program. This exacerbated concerns about the (remote) possibility of BSE-infected meat getting into the food supply. And that quickly overwhelmed the animal-cruelty concerns that had motivated the HSUS investigation in the first place. The Congressional hearings and (superficial) changes to processing practices that occurred as a result of the video focused primarily on improving food safety, with little discussion of how animals bound for slaughter are, or should be, treated.
It reminded me of how Upton Sinclair said that, when he wrote The Jungle, that he “aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” meaning that he’d meant to bring attention to the horrific conditions immigrant workers faced at work but what the public outcry centered on was the idea of rats in their meat.
I thought this might be a good example of how activists try to frame issues but have incomplete control of the framing process once it enters the public domain and may find that media depictions and public discussions of the issue take a very different path than they would have liked.