How ‘Ag-Gag’ Laws Undermine Our Food System

Find out how ag-gag laws, which exist in eight U.S. states, are making it harder to ensure food safety and protect against farm animal cruelty.

| December 2013/January 2014

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

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.

11/21/2013 7:02:34 AM

Between these Ag-Gag laws and patent infringement lawsuits by Monsanto and Cargill against small farmers it seems there is an all out assault being waged against our First Amendment and Property rights. These companies desire an absolute stranglehold on our food production capabilities and it's beginning to look like they're getting the upper hand and will achieve that goal. Those who control the food control the people and allowing these corporations to monopolize our food production is dangerous.

11/20/2013 8:01:58 AM

This may be a radical idea, but how about humans quit producing so many offspring and then the meat industry will not have as many people to try to feed and may be able to slow. The only way to produce enough food to feed the ever growing population is going to be ugly by necessity. Too many people on the planet to be able to offer the animals the space they need to be comfortable. If you want to preach responsibility start at the foundation and tell humans that it is not ok to reproduce irresponsibly. When we lose farmland to housing it cannot be replaced. So how do we feed the people in that housing that refuse to feed themselves? With inhumane production.



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