How ‘Ag-Gag’ Laws Undermine Our Food System

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Transparency is often lacking for large-scale livestock operations housed in enclosed barns. Ag-gag laws are only restricting it further.
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Even aerial photographs of animal facilities are illegal in some states that have enacted ag-gag laws.

As public awareness of our unsustainable and inhumane industrial meat production system grows, Big Ag has convinced eight state legislatures to enact a variety of measures known as “ag-gag” laws.

The first of these laws, passed in Kansas in 1990, made it illegal to take photos at an animal facility or animal research lab. More recently, Arkansas made it a crime to get an animal agriculture job under false pretenses. Six other states now have ag-gag laws: Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says that even more insidious are ag-gag laws that require anyone who records farm animal cruelty or other impropriety to turn the recording over to police within 24 hours. Rottman calls ag-gag laws a curtailment of First Amendment rights, largely because of the effect they have on investigative journalism, but also because they could turn people who become whistle-blowers into criminals.

Investigative journalism can make a real difference within the food system. In 2008, for instance, after an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) into a dairy cow slaughter plant in California, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) completely shut down the plant. Workers who were abusing animals were charged with criminal cruelty, and the largest food recall in U.S. history based on food safety concerns unfolded. Had ag-gag laws been in place, this outcome likely wouldn’t have been possible.

In April 2013, Utah became the first state to prosecute a violation of its ag-gag law when Amy Meyer was arrested after recording (with a cell phone) a live cow being carried by a bulldozer at the Dale Smith Meatpacking Co. in Draper City. The charges against Meyer were dropped (she was filming from a public easement), but in July 2013, a coalition of journalists and activists filed a civil suit against Utah’s ag-gag law, alleging that it violates First Amendment rights.

Rottman says ag-gag laws have become very high-profile in the past year, and for those concerned about food system transparency, the situation is looking up. In Tennessee in May 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a new ag-gag law after an outpouring of public concern. As of August 2013, new ag-gag bills had been defeated in 11 states. In addition to grass-roots campaigns fighting these attempts to hide industrial ag’s secrets, the photos of mistreated animals that tend to appear in media coverage of ag-gag laws only add to public awareness that the meat industry has something to hide.

So, are ag-gag laws backfiring? “We are not convinced they are gone for good, but we are hopeful that the industry and the states considering these bills have witnessed how much negative publicity they tend to garner,” says Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign.

Meanwhile, in states that have enacted ag-gag laws, nobody knows much about what’s happening to farm animals, because the organizations that investigate their treatment usually abide by the laws, says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the HSUS. Because no federal animal welfare laws regulate the treatment of animals while they’re on factory farms, Shapiro adds that undercover investigations and relying on whistle-blowers are the only ways the public can expect evidence of animal cruelty or food safety problems to come out. Some people are starting to get creative in how they attempt to get information, though. In July 2013 in Kansas, for example, a freelance photographer shooting for National Geographic was arrested for trespassing after he parked on private property while taking pictures of an animal feedlot from overhead in a paraglider. Animal rights groups and investigative journalists are reportedly planning to use drones to continue monitoring animal welfare.

Temple Grandin, animal scientist, called ag-gag bills “the stupidest thing that ag ever did” during a talk at a 2012 Iowa Farm Bureau meeting. Public sentiment seems to be shifting toward the same view?—?and to foster a healthy, safe, abuse-free food system, many people are looking for laws that encourage more transparency, not less.