Undercover farm investigation. Photo: We Animals Media
You have probably heard the term “ag-gag” in the news at some point over the last few years, especially if you keep up with industrial agricultural news, or farmed animal welfare news, as both of these topics intersect with regard to ag-gag laws. You might know a little about what these laws are, but perhaps you’ve also wondered, “Why all the fuss?”
This month, we’re taking a look at what ag-gag laws are, which states have passed ag-gag laws, and why you should care about them.
Image source: Cagle
Ag-Gag Laws in Practice
In February of 2013, Utah resident Amy Meyer stopped outside a Draper, Utah slaughterhouse. While standing on a public easement, outside the property line of the slaughterhouse, she began seeing disturbing treatment of animals, and decided to film it.
Ms. Meyer’s video showed a “downed” cow (“downers” are animals that are injured somehow and unable to walk) being hoisted and moved by a forklift, and others that had water hoses used on them to get them to move.
“Downed” animals are not supposed to enter the food supply without veterinary approval, as there is a possibility they could be infected with bovine spongiform encephalitis, better known as mad cow disease.
In 2008, a similar incident involving “downed” cattle occurred after an undercover video surfaced, and resulted in the largest meat recall in US history: a whopping 143 million pounds of beef, some of which went to school lunch programs.
Thanks to “ag-gag” legislation, even though she filmed from a public space, Ms. Meyer was subsequently charged with “agricultural operation interference.” The charge could have potentially landed her in jail for six months for the “crime” of filming what was happening to the animals at Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Company. Amy Meyer ended up being the first individual to be prosecuted under the “ag-gag” laws.
Though charges were ultimately dropped in response to public outcry, a clear message had been sent: those who dare to expose what goes on behind closed doors could potentially face jail time.
What are Ag Gag Laws?
The term ag-gag typically refers to state laws in the U.S. that forbid the act of undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the consent of their owner—particularly targeting whistleblowers of animal rights abuses at these facilities.
Sometimes also known as “anti-whistleblower laws,” there are basically three types of Ag Gag laws:
- Agricultural Interference. This law bans recording images or sounds on animal factory operations without the owner’s consent.
- Agricultural Fraud. This law prohibits individuals from entering, or applying for employment at animal factory operations under false pretenses, as an undercover journalist might perhaps do.
- Rapid-Reporting Mandate. This legislation requires anyone who records an image or sound at an animal factory operation to turn that recording over to authorities within a specified amount of time, typically within 24-48 hours. The problem with this mandate is that it does not allow enough time to establish a pattern of abuse.
Why does the Factory Farming Industry have Ag-Gag Laws?
Those in favor of ag-gag laws claim they are necessary in order to protect farmers from activists who may enter their farms and take video footage, and show something out of context that would appear to be damaging to the industry – and damaging to the farmer, especially economically.
Ag-gag legislation is the industry’s response to when they have been caught behaving badly, whether by abusing animals and/or by violating laws. It has made the act of ‘whistleblowing’ a criminal offense. Rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing, the industry has instead sought to silence and shut down the messenger by criminalizing the act of whistleblowing.
You may have noticed that it is not the small independent farmers that are complaining about consumers seeing inside their operations. In fact, many of them will welcome you onto their farm for a tour. Rather, the group clamoring the loudest for ag-gag laws is the one with the most to lose: industrialized animal factories.
The industrial agricultural community would love nothing more than to keep consumers in the dark about their operations, because when consumers are actually given a peek at what goes on behind closed doors, it is generally not good at all for business.
Why You Should Care
When “downed” animals are allowed to enter a slaughterhouse, and thereby jeopardize our food supply, public safety is just one very good reason to be concerned about criminalizing whistleblowing.
Results from a 2012 poll conducted by the ASPCA show that 94% of Americans feel that animals raised for food deserve to not only be treated humanely, but that it is important for consumers to know that the food in our supply chain is safe.
Without the work being done by undercover investigators, or even the average citizen who just happens to witness something of concern, we would not know about the severe mistreatment of the animals on industrialized factory operations and slaughterhouses, or food safety violations.
At a time when consumers are increasingly wanting to know where their food comes from, the industry has become increasingly secretive.
Criminalizing the act of whistleblowing has the potential to impact many other areas beyond industrial factory farming, including such places as nursing homes, schools, veteran care facilities, hospitals, and other vulnerable populations. To criminalize the act of whistleblowing is to criminalize our very right to free speech. It puts the public, and also employees, at risk when dangerous or unsafe conditions exist in certain work places, and no one will speak out about it for fear of the repercussions.
The Humane Society of the United States has compiled this list of the more than 70 groups including the ACLU, the ASPCA, Amnesty International, Farm Forward, Food and Water Watch, United Farm Workers, and the Natural Resources Defense Council that are opposed to Ag Gag laws.
Where States Stand Now
According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center of Michigan State University, “[t]wenty-five states have attempted to pass modern-day ag-gag laws, and six of those states have succeeded. The states that have passed ag-gag laws are (in chronological order), Iowa Utah, Missouri, Idaho, Wyoming, and North Carolina. The first five impose criminal penalties, while North Carolina’s is the first ag-gag law in the nation to impose a civil sanction.”
Ag gag legislation was introduced in Illinois in 2012, but failed.
In places where ag gag legislation is enacted, it stands to have a negative impact on the welfare of farmed animals in industrial agricultural settings, and the quality and safety of our food supply chain. This kind of restrictive legislation also impacts worker protections, and, infringes upon our First Amendment rights.
There is truth to the old adage, Sunlight is the best disinfectant. When you have nothing to hide, you hide nothing. You do not fear transparency.
What is the factory farm industry doing that they are so intent on hiding? We should all want to know, and we should continue to demand that we have access to such information. Our health, animal welfare, and so much more depends on knowing the truth.
Author bio: Christy Slaby is a life-long animal lover who resides in Illinois. She has been involved in both companion animal and farmed animal advocacy for several years. Christy joined the Crate Free Illinois team as a volunteer Social Media Coordinator in October 2017.