PETA’s Undercover Investigations: Another Example of the Welfarist Business Cycle

During the day or two after I published PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions, I had a friendly email exchange with a reader who wrote that she was reconsidering her support of PETA as a result of the blog entry, but that there was still a lot she liked about PETA. She mentioned specifically that she liked PETA’s undercover investigations, and that the recent Land-o-Lakes investigation was one that stood out as an example.Removed from the context of PETA’s welfarist philosophy, undercover investigations don’t seem problematic from an animal rights viewpoint. After all, human rights organizations routinely investigate, report, and display human rights violations to bring the public’s attention to the problem and garner political support to end such abuses. As such, it’s understandable why someone who objects to many of PETA’s activities might see undercover investigations as an exception – as an activity in which an animal rights organization would naturally engage.

Placed back into the context of PETA’s welfarism, however, we see that their undercover investigations are more of the same single-issue and welfare campaigns dressed up in a heroic gown. Whereas a human rights organization would unequivocally claim that rights violations – slavery, exploitation, and killing – are wrong and should end, PETA merely wants the target exploiter to observe traditional welfare standards while rights violations continue.

Undercover investigations are just another example of PETA’s role in the industry-welfarist partnership as both strategic advisor on quality control and traditional welfare cop. An analogy in capital markets is the independent auditor reporting on the financial statements of publicly-held corporations. The auditor isn’t looking to end the financial reporting or the client’s business, but to make sure it complies with existing financial reporting standards. Auditing welfare conditions and financial reporting are both lucrative businesses. PETA doesn’t oppose industry’s exploitation per se; they just want industry to exploit and kill according to generally accepted exploiting standards and to receive their compensation from consumer-donors for their work as industry’s quality control auditors.

Using the Land-o-Lakes investigation as an example, we see that PETA’s blog report on the investigation emphasizes how important it is for Land-o-Lakes to “buy milk only from farms that meet our 12-point animal welfare plan, which would prevent much of the suffering we documented at this farm.” PETA’s 12-point animal welfare plan reads like an industry consultant’s quality control recommendations and refers to industry’s own standards and literature (e.g. Elanco Body Scoring Chart for Dairy Cattle and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia). [1]

Does PETA suggest that people go vegan? No. The blog report states “For those of you who can’t stomach the thought of eating butter after watching that video, take a minute to tell Land-o-Lakes to implement our 12-point animal welfare plan. Then check out one of the many vegan butter alternatives that are widely available.”

What should the reader infer from PETA’s blog report on the investigation? I suppose it depends on how well the reader can “stomach the video”. What’s right or wrong for PETA depends on the reader’s visceral feelings about welfare violations in the video, not on any concept of justice or rights. Apparently for PETA, what’s right or wrong is merely a matter of our individual emotions or ability to stomach welfare violations. Further, as long as Land-o-Lakes eventually implements PETA’s welfare plan, we can infer from PETA that we should go back to eating butter at that time. PETA’s concern is not with rights violations (i.e. the enslavement, exploitation, and murder of these innocent beings), but with traditional welfare violations (i.e. treating the cows in ways that are not optimally efficient for exploiting them).

Undercover investigations should function in an animal rights movement the same way they do in a human rights movement: to bring attention to the issue and continue a dialogue about ending rights violations. In other words, undercover investigations should function solely as a catalyst for vegan education. Outside of that particular context, they are worse than useless. In supporting PETA’s attempts at improving quality control over exploitation and killing through undercover investigations, donors ultimately support industry.


[1] Some readers may not be aware that animal agribusiness, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Veterinary Medical Association Political Action Committee (AVMAPAC) all strongly support each other politically and economically. The AVMAPAC is in a close partnership with industry’s political and economic interests as brief research on AVMAPAC’s legislative positions make clear.

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