Commentary: Good news, bad news

There's both good news and bad news about yet another animal activist "mission" abroad, in this case Finland. Not to mention some disturbing turns as the story unfolds.

Two years ago, a Finnish animal welfare group, Justice for Animals, releasedundercoverphotos and videosdocumenting of pork production practices among 30 different farmsacross the Scandinavian country. The activists responsible for the operation were described in news reports as "27-year-old unemployed vegan chef Karry Hedberg and 24-year-old political science student Saila Kivelä (see photo).

Justice for Animals (Oikeutta Eläimille in Finish) earlierthis year had released undercover photosmade in 2010 showing animals at Finnish fur farms suffering from injuries, substandard living conditions and even cannibalism (allegedly). A documentary featuring more recent video footage of those farms aired this week on Finland's MTV cable channel.

According to bloggers in sympathy with the activists, "The images and videos of pigs and piglets crammed into confined, dirty spaces, many with fight wounds and open sores. Some pigs were found dead, rotting in pens, with others gnawing at them; others were discovered half-alive, covered in fleas, flies and dirt."

Nothing new in that description, as anyone who's been the target of these hidden video "investigations" can attest. Even the language "crammed into confined spaces" mimics almost verbatim the wording U.S. activists employ to spark public sympathy.

But here's the first plot twist.

The Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira followed up on the clandestine video footage ofalleged abuse on 32 of the farms the activists visited and determined 14 of themwere suspected of animal cruelty. Taina Mikkonen, Evira division head and chief veterinary inspector, told Finland's YLE Radio One which had earlier broadcast video footage on one of its current affairs programs that some of the findings were serious and had been passed on to law enforcementofficials for further investigation.

"Some of the cases of negligence were clearly more severe," Mikkonenexplained, "and some of them [were] typical and do not immediately work against the animals" well-being."

Mikkonen added that "by and large," the conditions at Finnish pig farms are up to standard. She noted further that her agency does provide farms with advance warning of inspections.

"Due to circumstances in Finland, with long distances and not necessarily enough resources for supervision, we often announce an inspection a day ahead of time," she told YLE Radio One."But let me emphasize that the types of piggeries where these videos were taken would never be able to correct those kinds of violations in one day."

As the process unfolded, however, something unexpected occurred.Justice for Animalsdid not directly tell authorities where the farms they videotaped were located. However, Evira officials were able to pinpoint their locations anyway, thanksto the use of GPS technology.

A disturbing development, to say the least.

Crimes were committed

After the video footage aired, Finnish politicians and agricultural officials promised to enact "changes" to the country's production standards, but that wasn't what happened.

Instead, as the Finnish newspaperHelsingin Sanomat reported, "According to inspections carried out at the farms, no animal rights regulations had been violated." Instead, prosecutorsdemanded €180,000 euros reparation from the activist pair. According to prosecutor Kari Lamberg, the two allegedly "implied that crimes would have been committed on the farms."

That's hardly the scenario most industry observers would have expected anywhere in Scandinavia, but it shed a glimmer of hope that the practice of undercover videotaping and subsequent heavy editing might eventually be judged in a harsher context, and the perpetrators held accountable.

Unfortunately, the story takes another turn, this time for the worse.

Yesterday, Finland's Proper District Court rejected most of the charges against Hedberg and Kivelä 10 cases of disturbing the peace and 12 cases of aggravated defamation. Four other activists had been charged with breachof peace and defamation in relation to the videotaping and subsequent airing of the footage they obtained. Three of thoseactivists had the charges against them dismissed due to lack of evidence; one was sentenced to a 20-day suspended jail term.

The court also rejected as groundless the plaintiffs" request for compensation.

In the end, there's no heart-warming conclusion to this tale, but those in industry can take solace in the fact that if ultra-liberal Finland can bring charges against undercover activists, then there's hope that those who pursue such tactics here as home might face a similar accounting.

Only with a happier ending.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, who is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.



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