Jonathan Frohnmayer: Big Pork is tipping the scales of justice in Utah

Attorney General Sean Reyes could have prosecuted Smithfield for animal cruelty, not activists for disclosing the truth.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks in his office, July 7, 2021.

“When it comes to power, no one dares to stand up to the pork industry … not even the U.S. government.”

Dr. Parthapratim Basu, former chief veterinarian of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

When corporate interests wield power over our judicial system, our freedoms are in peril, and Big Pork has its finger on the scales of justice.

Historically, the prosecutor’s role was to seek justice first, not convictions. Our society has made great strides in giving justice to groups who lacked it previously, and prosecutors have played a helpful role — for example, in holding corporations and individuals accountable for sexist or racist discrimination.

But for one group — nonhuman animals, including the billions of pigs, chickens, cows, and other animals inside factory farms — society provides essentially no justice. And in a pivotal pending animal rights case set for trial in Washington County, Utah, on October 3, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Assistant Attorney General Janise Macanas are not only not helping animals, but actively protecting abusive and exploitative practices toward them. Every Utah citizen should be concerned.

Reyes and Macanas brought the case following a 2017 investigation of Smithfield Foods by activists with the Berkeley-based group Direct Action Everywhere that appeared in The New York Times. The activists, including this author, documented the deplorable conditions at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, using 3D cameras, showing a piglet trying to feed from her mother’s torn and bleeding nipples, piglets lying collapsed and writhing on metal flooring and the bodies of decomposing piglets lying alongside live ones. The activists also removed two piglets who were in particularly bad health for treatment at a veterinarian and placement on a sanctuary.

Faced with these facts, Reyes and Macanas could have chosen to prosecute Smithfield for animal cruelty. The activists’ photographs and footage, which constitute a minuscule window into the pain and suffering of Smithfield’s pigs, would be compelling evidence for a jury of how drastically out of touch modern factory farms are with most people’s sense of right and wrong. Such a prosecution would allow Smithfield to confront its own practices, such as castrating piglets without anesthesia and confining mother pigs so tightly in crates that they cannot even turn around, to which it has undoubtedly become desensitized after generations of pursuing profit. The lives of potentially millions of pigs could be made less painful.

Instead, Reyes and Macanas chose to file felony charges against the activists, initially threatening them with 60 years of prison. Moreover, the prosecutors filed a motion excluding all evidence of animal cruelty from the trial, unconstitutionally preventing the activists from showing that the piglets would likely have ended up in a dumpster and thus had no market value — negating an element of the charges against the activists.

The activists can also no longer demonstrate what motivated them to take action, giving credence to the farcical narrative that this case is about the alleged “theft” of two piglets and not about protecting Smithfield from the disclosure of truthful information about its treatment of pigs. Reyes and Macanas seek to prevent the jury from seeing what should have been the basis for their own case against Smithfield.

In making this case about the activists, Reyes and Macanas obfuscate who the true victims are: the pigs themselves. Though human activity profoundly affects these highly intelligent, emotional, sentient beings’ lives, they and countless other animals have no representation in our legal or political systems; all laws concerning them were conceived by human beings, almost exclusively to serve the industries that profit from their exploitation. Those exploitative corporations, by contrast, have immense power in our legal and political systems.

Given this vast differential, prosecutors should side, whenever possible, with nonhuman animals and enforce cruelty laws. Reyes and Macanas could have done so but are instead choosing the opposite, and they should be accountable to the people of Utah who want justice for the truly vulnerable.

Jonathan D. Frohnmayer

Jonathan Frohnmayer is an attorney in California and one of the members of the investigative team at Circle Four. He took a plea deal in his case that included the stipulation that he not “harass” Smithfield after rejecting the original offer that he not “criticize” Smithfield.