Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Law

Ag-gag laws: protecting industrial farms, but from what?

Some see animal cruelty and food supply as separate issues.

June 21, 2013
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Ag-gag laws, now in existence in five states, seek to prevent people from sneaking onto farms or entering under false pretenses to film what goes on there.

“All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them; and there are not merely rivers of hot blood and carloads of moist flesh, and rendering-vats and soup cauldrons, glue-factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell — there are also tons of garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dry and dining rooms littered with food black with flies, and toilet rooms that are open sewers."

With that description — and others equally shocking — author Upton Sinclair exposed common food production processes many Americans had no idea existed. The descriptions in his novel, “The Jungle,” published in 1906, brought horror both for what was viewed as animal and worker abuse and for the food safety risks the processes posed. The book is credited as the catalyst for the first food safety law: the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Act, enacted in 1906.

Today, a series of “ag-gag” laws, as they are referred to, have been proposed in an effort to outlaw, essentially, the type of actions Sinclair used at the turn of the 20thcentury to document the industry.

Ag-gag laws exist in Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas.In the past year, 12 more states saw these laws proposed but none of them received enough support to become law. The most recent to be considered was in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the bill based on First Amendment questions.

Although Michigan has yet to see similar legislation proposed, the interconnectivity of the country’s food system means the potential impact of these bills doesn’t stop at a state’s borders.

Thomas L. Cooley Law School professor Devin Schindler, formerly a partner with Warner Norcross & Judd, acknowledges that ag-gag laws are controversial and doesn’t see many more passing due to the pushback these proposed laws have received. But he does think that farmers are at a disadvantage without them.

He pointed out there are already laws against trespassing and fraud, but ag-gag laws take things a step further, making it easier to punish people who might come to a farm under the pretense of a job but are really there to document the farm’s operations.

“The idea here is that, after a series of very highly visible situations, including one in California in 2008 which led to a $500 million fine and the closing of a plant, the large agricultural producers, and to a large extent farmers, became concerned that they were going to have people sneaking on their lands or entering their lands under false pretenses and filming what occurs on the farm. … It’s not always pretty what happens on a farm.”

Schindler, along with those who have proposed these laws, believes farms are unfairly targeted, and the laws will help protect a farmer from being seen as “the bad guy” for what are common, accepted farming practices.

Schindler doesn’t believe ag-gag laws pose a threat to food, workers or environmental or animal safety like the law’s critics do.

“The fact of the matter is that big agriculture is heavily regulated both at the federal and the state level, and many of these activities that are being filmed are already illegal.

“It’s interesting because there is always going to be bad guys in any industry,” Schindler said. “What I’ve seen historically, being raised in a rural area, is that most farmers and agriculture businesses want to do the right thing. There are always going to be outliers and there are always going to be situations when animals die and they aren’t going to be cleaned up in the first 10 hours.

“Part of the justification for these laws is that you can take a particular situation out of context and make it look like standard operating procedure when in fact it’s a one-time outlier.

“There may be some marginal improvement, but, by and large, farmers and agricultural businesses that are of a mind to violate the law are going to do so irrespective of whether a gag law protects them or not.”

Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing animal abuse and other criminal activity on industrialized farms, disagrees. The organization has been involved in several investigations and believes they are necessary to achieve important changes in common farm practices.

“These laws are designed specifically to prevent whistleblowers from exposing criminal animal abuse and any other criminal activity that occurs behind closed doors at factory farms, and they’re designed to keep the public in the dark about where their food comes from,” said Vandhana Bala, general counsel for Mercy For Animals. 

“There is really no good reason for these laws to exist.”

Bala said in a time where the public is demanding more transparency regarding food production, these laws seek to close the barn doors even further. 

She noted that, despite claims of industrial farms being heavily regulated by federal and state laws, many of the practices that outrage consumers are considered common practice and therefore legal, including burning chickens’ beaks, gestation crates, and sending weak or possibly ill chickens and pigs to slaughter and into the food supply. Recently, there has been a push to outlaw some of what are considered to be the worst of these common agriculture processes, including gestation crates.

Bala said there are only a few federal laws that currently apply to the treatment of farm animals.

“The only federal laws that offer farmed animals any protection have to do with the time of slaughter — known as the Humane Method of Slaughter Act — and, as the name suggests, that only governs the actual time of slaughter. More importantly that excludes poultry. … The other federal law deals with transportation of animals between states,” she said.

“The vast majority of states exclude farmed animals from their animal cruelty protection,” she added.

In fact, the California case Schindler mentioned fell under the Humane Method of Slaughter Act, because the farm was sending ill cows into the food supply. And in that case, federal regulators were found to be looking the other way.

“Investigations have documented practices occurring right under the noses of federal inspectors,” Bala said.

“These modern day factory farms are a breeding ground for disease that is going to affect the human food supply. The investigation in California led to the largest recall of beef in United States’ history, where potentially contaminated meat was being sent to the National School Lunch Program for children to eat, all because the farm was trying to put its profits over anything else and sending non-ambulatory cows into slaughter.

“There is a whole host of environmental problems that are also happening because of concentrated animal operations, in terms of waste production and the emissions of methane gas. There is a lot of environmental deterioration that is going on at such a rapid pace because of the animal agriculture industry. It’s going in a really bad direction.”

Bala also noted that these laws, many of which require any photos or videos that have been taken undercover to be turned over within a 24- to 48-hour window, prevent investigators from documenting how the abuses and criminal activity are coming from the top down.

“Lately, what’s been happening is that a lot of these corporations whose employees are charged with criminal animal cruelty, what they are doing is they are firing these employees and they are saying, ‘Well, that’s not how we do things here. These employees are clearly rogue employees; we have a zero tolerance policy for animal cruelty …’ 

“What we try to do is to show that these managers and supervisors knew, at a minimum, or participated in these acts to try and get some meaningful change in the corporate level because otherwise they fire these employees who get scapegoated and then they hire new employees to replace them, and then it’s back to business as usual.”

Mercy for Animals investigations have led to some positive changes, according to Bala.

“We’ve had some great success in pushing for corporate animal welfare policy changes — legislation to ban some of these inherently cruel practices that fall outside the scope of the animal cruelty laws.”

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