We have all seen, or at least heard about, the disturbing undercover videos of animals being subjected to cruelty and just plain torture by workers in slaughterhouses and on factory farms. This exposure has led to shutdowns as well as criminal prosecutions. However, those videos could be a thing of the past if the agricultural industry (“Big Ag”) and their well-funded political allies have their way. They are seeking to criminalize the recording of activities on farms and in slaughterhouses, or, at the very least, to enact restrictions that would make the kind of undercover investigations by animal rights groups that have produced evidence of this horrific behavior nearly impossible to carry out.
In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of “ag-gag” bills in state legislatures around the U.S., and the media has taken notice. The New York Times recently featured a front-page story on ag-gag legislation. Who is behind these bills? What provoked them? What do these laws mean for the future of exposing not only animal abuse, but health, safety, and environmental issues in the farm industry?
What Are “Ag-Gag” Bills?
The term “ag-gag” was coined by Mark Bittman in a 2011 New York Times editorial. These are essentially anti-whistleblower bills, intended to criminalize such investigative techniques as “the recording, possession or distribution of photos, video and/or audio” that are used to expose animal cruelty, food-safety issues, and poor working conditions. Although the bills vary by state, some make it a crime to photograph or tape activities on a factory farm without the permission of the owner, and others “mandate reporting of any issues discovered “with impossibly short timelines so that no pattern of abuse can be documented,” according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Most undercover investigations would be virtually impossible with these restrictions.
The Diverse Interests Fighting Ag-Gag Laws
The groups fighting these bills include not only animal rights groups, but organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and United Farm Workers. Nearly sixty groups in all, including civil liberties, public health, food safety, environmental, food justice, animal welfare, legal, workers’ rights, journalism, and First Amendment organizations, have signed a Statement of Opposition to anti-whistleblower bills. Anti ag-gag editorials have appeared in newspapers in California, Tennessee, Indiana and Wyoming. However, they are fighting big, and well-funded, foes.
Who Is Behind the Legislation?
Not surprisingly, the farm industry has been a driving force behind the state bills. “Big Ag” is a powerful and well-funded lobby in the U.S. Moreover, a name familiar to those who follow politics is also instrumental in getting these anti-whistleblower bills drafted and through the legislatures: the American Legislative Exchange Council (better known by its acronym, ALEC). ALEC is a conservative advocacy group that “creates model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers.” They have been behind the scenes of the push for “stand your ground” gun laws, tighter voter ID regulations, and the teaching of climate change denial. ALEC is funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers. The men behind Koch Industries, the makers of such well known products as Brawny paper towels and Dixie cups have lent their considerable wealth to back conservative causes and candidates.
According to Grist.org, ALEC proposed model legislation ten years ago that was the basis of the ag-gag bills we are seeing in state legislatures today. That early legislation, known as the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, sought to make it illegal to “enter an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.” Although there have been laws for many years aimed at keeping activists from destroying property, stealing animals or setting them free, the ag-gag bills go much further. They criminalize whistleblowing on factory farms and in slaughterhouses.
It is not just documentation by outside groups, but often by employees, that has exposed appalling animal abuse, as well as unsafe conditions for the workers, and health and safety violations. Not surprisingly, a number of lawmakers who are pushing ag-gag laws have ties to the agricultural industry and/or ALEC.
The ag-gag battles are being fought on the state level, because, as The Atlantic pointed out, “there is not a single federal law in the U.S. protecting animals from cruelty on factory farms.” Moreover, as seen by federal farm legislation, “our economic policy also favors factory farmers by subsidizing billions of dollars in feed and equipment costs.” This makes it “virtually impossible for small, sustainable farmers to compete.”
According to advocacy group Farm Forward, ten states (New York, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Utah, Tennessee, Missouri, Nebraska, and Minnesota) introduced ag-gag bills in 2012. Some of these have been stalled or died because of opposition from the public and newspaper editorial boards seeking more transparency. Because many of these previous attempts at ag-gag laws were met by anti-First Amendment charges, the focus of most of the bills currently before state legislators is quick reporting of any findings (24 to 48 hours) rather than outlawing of any recording of abuses.
Although agriculture industry officials claim that ag-gag bills are efforts to stop animal cruelty in farming operations, they actually undermine advocates’ work to develop animal cruelty or food safety cases against the agricultural industry. Since most investigations require documentation over a period of time to establish a pattern of abuse, such reporting restrictions would effectively shut down investigations. As Matt Dominguez, who works on farm animal protection at HSUS, told the New York Times, “At the first sign of animal cruelty, we’d have to pull our investigator out, and we wouldn’t be able to build a case that leads to charges.”
Additional restrictions would require the tapes to be turned over to law enforcement rather than being made public. However, it is often the public outcry that results from these undercover videos that forces action against the companies and employees involved. As the website ThinkProgress put it, the requirement that videos and photos to be immediately turned over to law enforcement rather than the press ”makes it doubtful that the public — the people who are consuming the meat, eggs and milk from these factory farms — will ever see them.”
It has been this public outrage that has generated a PR nightmare for large fast-food chains like McDonalds, which announced that it will phase out the use of gestation crates by its suppliers, and stopped buying eggs from Iowa’s Sarboe Farms, the fifth largest egg supplier in the country, after an undercover video released in 2011 by Mercy for Animals showed abuses by workers including burning off the beaks of young chicks and throwing them into cages as well as grabbing hens by their throats and ramming them into battery cages. The video showed chicks trapped and mangled in cage wire, and others with open wounds and torn beaks. Live chicks were also thrown into plastic bags to be suffocated.
According to ABC News, so far in 2013, legislation that would ban or restrict the undercover taping on farms has been introduced in nine states and remains active in six of those: Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California.
What Do Animal Rights Groups Say?
Fearing arrest under laws pushed by the agriculture industry, animal rights activists have already halted undercover camera investigations into animal cruelty in the five states where the laws went into effect last year.
“If you think that chilling speech and closing the curtain on our food production is winning, then yes, they’ve won,” says Wayne Pacelle, CEO and President of HSUS.
“Under the guise of property rights, ag gag bills are intended to prevent consumers from ever seeing the animal abuse, contaminated crops, illegal working conditions, and food safety problems that are commonly found on industrial farms,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
A longtime activist who caught criminal animal cruelty on videotape at an Idaho dairy farm said he’s not going to be deterred by the aggressive push by some state lawmakers to restrict the use of undercover cameras. He told ABC News that he recorded employees beating, kicking and dragging dairy cows around the farm – animal abuse violations that resulted in criminal charges against three workers.
What Have Investigations Uncovered?
In 2008, an HSUS undercover investigation of a slaughterhouse in Chino, CA that revealed horrific animal abuse resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history, resulting in a six-figure settlement.
In 2009, HSUS released video of a Vermont slaughterhouse where veal calves were skinned alive and tossed “like sacks of potatoes,” resulting in the plant’s closure and criminal convictions.
A 2010 Food and Drug Administration report on conditions in several large egg-producing facilities in Iowa described flies, maggots, rats, wild birds, tainted feed, and workers ignoring sanitary rules. The report portrayed, in the words of Mother Jones, “the facilities as a kind of fecal nightmare, with manure mounding up in eight-foot piles — providing perches for escaped hens to peck feed from teeming cages — overflowing in pits, and seeping through concrete foundations.”
In late 2011, the organization Mercy for Animals released a video shot inside a North Carolina turkey factory farm owned by Butterball. The video shows acts of animal cruelty and neglect. As a result, five Butterball employees were charged with felony and misdemeanor animal cruelty.
Also in 2011, Mercy For Animals released an undercover video of calves being killed with hammers and pickaxes at E6 Cattle Company.
In 2012, HSUS released an undercover video of workers at Wyoming’s Premium Farms, a supplier to the meat industry giant Tyson Foods, punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air.
Citizen advocacy can help stop ag-gag legislation. If you live in a state with a current or pending ag-gag bill, contact your state representatives. For more detail on individual states’ bills, go to Farmforward, Food Whistle Blower, or Source Watch Ag-gag laws.