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Ag-Gag Laws: Pulling the Curtain on the Cruelty of Animal Farming

In recent years, undercover investigators have successfully exposed horrific cruelty in the animal agriculture industry, documenting abuse on video and in photos. Mainstream news outlets have aired the footage of graphic violence and miserable conditions farm animals endure daily in commercial animal agriculture. Viewing this appalling treatment of farm animals can make even a strong stomach turn and with each new investigation it becomes clear that the callousness is widespread; misery is the industry standard, not just a few rotten egg facilities. Yet, instead of improving conditions for animals and workers, big agribusiness is trying to draw a curtain to shield their inhumane operations from public accountability.

Last year, because of pressure from the animal agriculture lobby, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, and New York introduced bills that would make it illegal to document farm activity without the owner’s consent. Although this legislative effort was defeated in all states, similar bills are cropping up again in 2012. More states may try to pass similar legislation designed to undermine whistleblowers who seek to keep the public informed and to hold industry accountable to basic levels of food safety and humane standards. These courageous individuals risk their personal safety to go undercover and document the egregious practices inside the closed doors of livestock facilities. But instead of being heralded as heroes, they could soon face criminal prosecution.

So-called “ag-gag” or whistleblower suppression bills are a violation of free speech rights and an attack on the freedom of the press. For democracy to function properly, the public must be well informed. Whistleblowers exposing the wrongdoing in this or in any other industry should be protected, not victimized. Such industry supported legislation undermines our rights as citizens to be informed and weakens the very fabric of our democracy.

In some cases, these bills would even make it illegal to posses or distribute images that are collected by undercover investigators. Imagine if a news outlet exposing a video of a cow being struck with a crow bar could be criminally prosecuted for airing the footage. This legislation could effectively shut down the only mechanism available for penetrating the secretive world of animal agriculture and exposing illegal and unethical practices within.

Just last month an investigation by Mercy for Animals exposed shocking footage of a Butterball Turkey facility in North Carolina. What the investigator witnessed was unbelievable. Workers were caught on video kicking, stomping, and dragging birds, violently throwing them on the ground and smashing their heads with metal bars. Birds were left to suffer with extreme illness and injuries, open sores and infections. The video footage was so horrific, when local law enforcement saw it, they obtained a warrant and raided the facility on grounds of cruelty to animals. This is how law enforcement should react to investigative videos– go after the real criminals, not punish the messenger.

“Big Ag” has a reason to be concerned. These videos are instrumental in furthering laws to protect farm animals from cruel and unnecessary suffering. By informing consumers about the wretched conditions of these facilities, the public may choose to reduce the amount of animal products consumed and create consumer demand for alternatives and more humane production. Humane standards may detract from the inflated revenue streams of industry moguls, so the industry has elected to keep the pubic ignorant.

It is imperative that people continue to have access to factory farming operations to witness and expose their abusive activity. The abuse that years of undercover video has revealed should prompt the USDA and other oversight committees– and, frankly, any farming operation that claims to care about welfare– to mount video cameras themselves throughout animal agriculture facilities, to oversee employees and keep a watchful eye for further abuse, rather than keeping the public in the dark.

These so called “ag-gag” bills are being condemned as unconstitutional by civil liberties, public health, food safety, veterinarian, environmental, food justice, and workers’ rights organizations. They are excessive and unnecessary as there are already extensive trespassing and slander laws that protect private property owners. The public has the right to know about illegal and unethical practices on farms such as food safety issues, working conditions and blatant animal abuse. Lawmakers should be holding animal agribusiness accountable for cruelty, instead of falling under the influence of industry that seeks to censor whistleblowers and keep the public uninformed for their own financial motives.

Image Source: Rosino/Flickr