Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but the slaughtering, processing, packaging, and distribution of animals used to be so much simpler.
For hundreds of years, the meat-packing industry bore the responsibility for transforming Bessie the Cow into carnivores’ favorite source of protein, and more recently the Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture ensured that the finished product was “safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.”
Not so anymore. Due to agency rules issued during the Obama era, FSIS inspectors enjoy expanded duties, including monitoring facilities for any “disrespectful” or “insult[ing]” communication (no, not among the animals). Should they uncover any such communication, inspectors are empowered to take “corrective action,” even if that involves slicing and dicing fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Fateful Day Don Put an Article in the Break Room
Predictably, unleashing meat inspectors to police the exercise of free speech—with guidelines that provide only vague directional prodding—is the equivalent of releasing a bull in a china shop. At least, it was for Don and Ellen Vander Boon, the owners of West Michigan Beef Company. (To be fair, Mythbusters found that bulls can be surprisingly respectful of grandma’s china. The same cannot be said for the USDA and the First Amendment.)
The USDA threatened to shut down this family-owned company, not because of health concerns, or because short ribs were incorrectly labeled as plate ribs (incidentally, you would not believe the labeling requirements), or because People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals infiltrated their ranks in some sort of hostile takeover bid. Rather, the so-called offense consisted of an article Don placed in the breakroom.
The breakroom at West Michigan Beef includes tables that essentially serve as a repository for newspapers, magazines, articles, and other forms of literature that employees or the owners wish to share with those who care to read them. Think of it as a pre-technological Facebook. Importantly, no one is required to read the materials, any more than I am required to flip through a two-year old copy of People while sitting in my dentist’s lobby, or to read my friend’s Facebook post about replacing smoke detector batteries (true story).
In 2015, following the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that purported to redefine marriage for the entire country, various employees shared articles and information related to the decision. Don participated by sharing an article that expressed the traditional Christian view that God designed marriage as a union between a man and a woman and set forth reasons for that position.
When a USDA public health veterinarian, the on-site inspector, saw the article in the breakroom, well, he had a cow. He removed the article and reported it to his USDA supervisor. The pair stampeded into Don’s office and threatened to remove USDA inspectors—effectively shutting down the facility—if Don returned the article to the breakroom, stating the article was offensive and harassing under expanded agency rules.