‘AG-Gag’ law controversy continues but doesn’t stop proponents
By Randa Wagner
Do you know where the meat on your dinner table comes from?
From beef, pork and poultry producers, you might answer, and you’d be correct. But between the farm and the grocery store, animals have to be slaughtered, butchered and sometimes packaged for sale in meat-processing plants. That is where there can be big problems, say humane societies and animal rights activists.
Since 1990, states have been adopting what has been tagged “Ag-Gag’ laws: bills passed by state legislatures to prohibit undercover photographs, video and sound recordings of animals suffering abusive or cruel handling and conditions in meat processing facilities. Many of these recordings have found their way onto the internet via YouTube and other venues. What the undercover videos show is difficult for many to watch: workers using electric prods on cattle that can barely walk; workers at a major turkey farm kicking and stomping birds, some of them with open wounds and exposed flesh; chickens being twirled through the air with a rope around their neck by a worker strolling through the plant… you get the idea. Don’t forget — this is meat that makes its way to your table.
Why would anyone defend this kind of activity and endorse laws to protect it?
“Proponents of the bills claim that they are necessary to protect agricultural interests,” writes Doris Lin in her March 2012 article for About.com Guide. They say if animal cruelty or any illegal activity is taking place at a facility, the employees can notify authorities.
“There are several problems with this argument,” Lin maintains. “Notifying authorities and waiting for authorities to get either a warrant or permission to enter the premises gives the wrongdoers a chance to cover up the problem. Cruel practices that are illegal will likely not be reported or exposed. Also, employees won’t report themselves to authorities and might be hesitant to report their co-workers and supervisors.”
Aren’t there folks out there who inspect meat processing plants regularly, you might ask? Due to limited funding, regulators are only able to inspect a small percentage of the food we consume. I recall having lunch with a group of friends recently, and the discussion came around to food quality. A new acquaintance in the group said he worked for a meat processing plant years ago, and his job for several months was to stamp each beef carcass that passed by on the hanging conveyer with the purple-inked USDA Quality Inspection Stamp.
“You mean, they didn’t really inspect the meat?” asked ‘naive’ me, which prompted an outburst of laughter at the table. No, he admitted, they did not inspect the meat.
Last year, activist group Compassion Over Killing released disturbing video footage from a National School Lunch Program supplier, Central Valley Meat, said M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D., in a February 14, 2013 article for The Motley Fool.
“It shows cows, before slaughter, covered in feces, writhing on the ground in blood, and projectile-vomiting from the stress of being repeatedly struck by a bolt gun (a weapon that pierces the skull to stun or “euthanize” the animals),” Hayes said. “Before the footage was released, Central Valley Meat also served as a supplier for McDonald’s and Costco. Both have since cut ties with the company.”
Hayes recalled how an undercover investigation led by the Humane Society led to the largest beef recall in history — removing meat that may have been tainted with mad cow disease from school cafeterias around the country.
The 2008 massive beef recall came about, she said, from a Humane Society undercover investigation that provided a video of “downer” cows — animals too weak or sick to walk — being dragged to slaughter at Hallmark Meat, a supplier to the National School Lunch Program. This led to a recall because a cow’s inability to stand or walk is a possible indicator of mad cow disease.
Farm groups claim they are appalled by animal cruelty, but that the exposés by animal rights groups are not the best way to solve the problem.
The “ag-gag” laws, Hayes explained, are designed to prevent anyone other than regulators or law enforcement officers from investigating dangerous or illegal agricultural practices that lead to mad cow disease, salmonella or Listeria poisoning, and other food-borne illnesses,
Kansas was the first state to enact an ag-gag law, in 1990. Montana and North Dakota followed in 1991. Iowa and Utah have signed on as well.
The law passed in Iowa in 2012 just a few months after an ABC News report with an undercover video made by an investigator for Mercy for Animals who worked at a large egg factory in Iowa. The report led to new procedures at the egg factory, but the investigator would not be able to do now what he did then, under the new law.
Ag-gag laws have been proposed by politicians in Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. Legislation may be introduced in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
In Utah last year, lawmakers referred to the animal welfare groups as “terrorists” and the enemy of farmers.
“This is about a group of people that want to put us out of business, make no mistake about it,” said Utah state Rep. Mike Noel.
The state laws are part of a campaign by lobbyists for the agriculture industry to put an end to the undercover videos they say have cast a harsh light on the operations of large-scale farms. Because of these new laws, animal rights activists have stopped undercover camera investigations into animal cruelty in states where it is prohibited. This leaves no one but a few regulators spread too thinly to look into allegations that come up in thus states.
How an animal is processed and handled directly affects the meats you buy as a consumer. Aside from human health and animal cruelty issues, other issues arise.
“These bills are troubling not only to animal protection activists, but also to those concerned with food safety, labor issues, free speech, and freedom of the press,” said Lin in her article. “The bills would apply equally to journalists, activists and employees. By prohibiting any type of undercover recordings, a farm’s own employees would be prohibited from attempting to record food safety violations, labor violations, sexual harassment incidents or other illegal activity.”
First Amendment concerns were raised, she said, because the Minnesota bill would have prohibited the broadcast of undercover videos, and the Florida bill originally prohibited any unauthorized photos or videos of a farm, including those shot from a public street.
“Agribusiness interests, rather than trying to prevent cruelty to animals, are trying to prevent the public from seeing what’s going on factory farms in the United States,” Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of the Humane Society of the United States, told ABC News. “You will never stop the abuse if you shut the cameras down.”