Animal rights activists are awaiting the verdict in the Smithfield piglet case

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In dollars and cents, the theft of two piglets from a sprawling farm in rural Utah was no great loss to its owner, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

But a few weeks after a group of animal rights activists posted video online of their late-night raid on Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, local and state law enforcement officials began a statewide investigation. FBI agents raided animal shelters in Utah and Colorado, and in one, state veterinarians cut off part of a piglet’s ear in their search for DNA evidence of the crime.

The stolen piglets were never found, and the federal government declined to press charges. However, Utah prosecutors filed burglary and larceny charges against five of the activists, three of whom pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, in exchange for agreeing not to set foot on Smithfield’s Utah property or the company for three years long to criticize online.

On Saturday, a jury began to consider the fate of the other two, Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer, who face six years in prison in a case that has become a célèbre among activists focusing on the plight of pigs, chickens and pigs Cows who spend their lives in so-called concentrated animal feed farms.

Animal rights activists say the trial has also become a showcase of corporate power to test whether the meat industry can prevent the public from looking behind the scenes and seeing the sometimes unsavory aspects of modern day mass-produced food.

Even the jury was prevented from learning about conditions at Circle Four Farm, which processes more than 1 million hogs a year and is one of the largest hog production facilities in the country. In a series of rulings, the judge removed all animal welfare testimony, barred the jury from viewing footage the defendants shot that day, and even barred any mention of the reasons for the defendants’ defection from the trial.

“This is a clear case of government abuse,” said Mary Corporon, an attorney for Picklesimer who filmed the raid. “Let’s face it, Joe Sixpack citizens can’t get the FBI to solve their TV break-in or their grandmother’s ring because they’re not a big multinational with immense political clout.”

Smithfield declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing process.

According to a state official, the stolen piglets were worth at most $42.50 each.

Prosecutors have dismissed the suggestion that they act on Smithfield’s behalf, finding that a crime is a crime and that investigators only acted after the defendants released footage of their 2017 raid, which they dubbed “Operation Death Star.” .

But in court documents, prosecutors argued that the company’s reputation was being damaged by the footage and other similar videos, including one released by the New York Times, as well as protests by animal rights activists targeting Costco, one of Smithfield’s biggest buyers , was damaged.

“The defamation campaign has caused reputational and image damage to Costco and Smithfield,” prosecutors wrote.

Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver and author of the book “Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment,” said prosecutors are making an unsubtle attempt to stem the growing movement of activists using subterfuge and hidden cameras to investigate the conditions to be documented on factory farms.

Farm-producing states have been particularly aggressive in their efforts to ban the use of undercover footage by activists and whistleblowers. In recent years, nearly a dozen states have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws criminalizing taking unauthorized videos or photographs on animal farms, although courts have ruled out five of them as unconstitutional in recent years. Marceau led the legal effort that overturned Utah law in 2017.

“Prosecutors would have you believe this case is about burglary, but the real issue is whether people can rescue animals from dire conditions that are now commonplace in our food system,” he said. “I can’t think of a more significant animal rights case in recent history.”

The defendants, members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, wanted to document the farm’s use of gestation crates, the metal enclosures for pregnant sows that critics say are cramped and inherently cruel. Smithfield had vowed to end their use by 2017, but Hsiung said the group encountered hundreds of them at Circle Four Farms.

“The agonizing screams of the pigs locked in these cages were so loud that we couldn’t talk to each other,” Hsiung said. The two piglets they picked up on the way out were sick and malnourished and most likely ended up in a dumpster.

Smithfield spokesman Jim Monroe said the company has largely phased out the use of gestation crates and is committed to improving the welfare of the tens of millions of hogs it raises each year. “Any deviation from our high standards of animal care is counterproductive to this mission,” he said in an email.

Richard Piatt, a spokesman for Utah attorney general Sean Reyes, said the defendants initiated prosecution by publicly releasing evidence of a crime. “Prosecutors feel compelled to acknowledge that there was a burglary and theft,” he said.

In fact, Hsiung, a lawyer and founder of DxE, has long embraced the kind of guerrilla tactics he knows can draw the public attention of sympathizers and law enforcement officials. He has been arrested more than a dozen times in recent years, and he said he sees the current trial as a kind of teaching moment.

“My goal is more transparency so the American public can really see how their food is produced,” he said.

The jury will not decide the fate of the two stolen piglets. The adult piglets, known as Lucy and Ethel, live at a Utah animal shelter. According to activists, they are fine.

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