On November 18, 2011, the animal rights group Mercy for Animals released a video that was secretly recorded at several farms owned and operated by Litchfield, Minnesota-based Sparboe Farms, the fifth largest shell egg producer in the United States. The video shows the mistreatment of select hens used in the production of eggs. The video was obtained by ABC News and was used as part of a story for the ABC News Magazine television show 20/20. That story and the surrounding media attention caused a ripple effect in the food industry. Within days of the release of the video, customers of Sparboe Farms—including McDonald’s, Target, Sam’s Club, and Lunds & Byerly’s—announced that they would no longer buy Sparboe-branded eggs. Although Sparboe Farms acknowledges select hens were mistreated, the company denies that these incidents are reflective of its general practices and has terminated the employees involved with the mistreatment of the animals.
For those companies involved in the business of agriculture and operating animal facilities, an important issue was raised in this case that has largely been ignored by the media: the tactics used by an animal rights group to obtain evidence used against Sparboe. The video was taken without authorization and before any attempt was made to address the issues internally with company management. The nonprofit group Mercy For Animals has taken credit for the video. It was taken by people associated with the group who obtained employment with Sparboe Farms for the sole objective to take the video.
Unauthorized or secret videos are a growing concern in the agriculture and food production industry, and for employers in general. It is remarkably easy to videotape anything with technology available today, and it is difficult to detect those who do this without permission. Often the videos displayed in the media focus only on isolated incidents of bad behavior. While the employee mistreatment of animals in the Sparboe videos is undeniable and inexcusable, Sparboe has publically taken responsibility for the problems and is in the process of a large-scale improvement initiative.
Sparboe is not alone. Other animal facilities have also been targeted by animal rights groups, and this latest news story is likely to fuel even more of this kind of activity. In some cases, facility management has learned after-the-fact that prospective employees have falsified information on their employment application in order to obtain access to the facility, and some videos taken by groups have later proven to be manipulated.
There are lessons to be learned in this particular case. Although select federal and state laws exist to prohibit the interference with research or operations at animal facilities, in many states the laws do not specifically address unauthorized videos taken by employees. For this reason, these videos continue to be a common strategy of animal rights groups. It is important for those in the industry to understand the laws surrounding the methods used by the animal rights group to draw attention to their cause and how to avoid becoming a target of these tactics. Adopting sound and thorough hiring practices, along with consistent training and enforcement of treatment guidelines, can help to prevent problems. Here are some suggestions:
Prepare for interviews of applicants and use relevant questions in a consistent manner with each applicant. Not only will this help identify potential imposters, it is simply good business to conduct thorough interviews. Here are some particular areas to cover, and potential warning signs associated with them.
If supervisors are properly trained and doing a good job overseeing staff, they will notice unusual behaviors that could indicate an imposter employee.
Although there are very few laws regulating the use of videos in a workplace, employers are free to adopt policies prohibiting the use of certain technology and technical devices, such as video smartphones, in the workplace. The policy should be in writing and distributed to every employee, preferably with a requirement that the employee sign an acknowledgement regarding their understanding of the policy.
As Ben Franklin taught us, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to avoid animal mistreatment is to make sure your employees understand the rules and follow them. In today’s business world, codes of conduct are common and expected. Put in place an Animal Care Code of Conduct and regularly and consistently provide training, education, and guidance to employees about proper handling of animals. And, of course, enforce the rules. If employees are not following the rules, address the situation immediately and with an appropriate response given the offense. Most people learn best by example, so ensuring those who break rules receive timely and adequate discipline will send a strong message to all of those who work around them.
Gray Plant Mooty is a full-service law firm with specialized practices in agribusiness and employment law. Contact Jeff Peterson if you have any questions regarding this alert.
This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal questions you may have.
Gray Plant Mooty is recognized as one of the leading corporate law firms in Minnesota and one of the top franchise firms in the world. Our roots go back to 1866. Today, we are a 180-plus attorney, full-service firm with offices in Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; and Fargo, North Dakota.