Why You Should Be Worried About Ag-Gag Bills

Should it be illegal to document what goes on in slaughterhouses? Some state governments certainly think so.

Big Food would rather this photo didn't exist. (Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)

Feb 15, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

The next time you scoff at the number of labels given the meat you buy (pasture-raised, free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free, etc.), consider this: Those labels may soon become your only window into what happens on most animal farms.

As it is now, consumers already rely heavily on the organizations behind these labels—such as Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane—to provide animal welfare standards (to wildly varying degrees, since, unlike the certified organic label, there is no unified federal standard behind such terms). Another option is buying meat from a small-scale producer who offers his customers more transparency than average (a terrific option for some, but one that is neither affordable nor accessible for all of us). What many of us don’t realize, however, is just how dependent consumers have become on undercover documentation of factory farms.

Take last year’s footage of downer cows being led to slaughter in a large California plant called Central Valley Meat. Whether you had the stomach to watch it or not (I don’t blame you if you didn’t), you may recall that this practice—of slaughtering cows that are so debilitated they can no longer walk—has truly frightening food-safety implications. Thanks to the footage, the plant was temporarily shut down last August (before reopening in September). But even more importantly, it raised the issue of what happens inside factory farms, and caused many of us to think hard about whether the food that comes from such places belongs on our plates. (There have been similar exposes in slaughterhouses, including one in Chino, CA, in 2008.)

It’s sad but true that most factory farms would rather spend their time stopping such documentation from occurring than cleaning up their actual practices. And that’s where “ag-gag bills “enter the picture. The idea with this legislation is to make the punishment for illegally documenting farms so extreme (a misdemeanor at best, a felony at worst) it stops such practices in their tracks.

Also called anti-whistleblower bills, these laws were proposed in ten states in 2012, and defeated in seven states. Groups around the country—including the increasingly effective Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), which has its own team of undercover factory farm investigators—raised public concern about the bills, and got the attention of lawmakers. And for a brief moment it looked like ag-gag laws were being seen for what they are: anticonstitutional. (Most food corporations have no problem claiming the first amendment when it benefits them, as is the case with advertising to children.)

Then came an effort to soften the language behind the laws, shifting, in some cases, from outlawing all photos of farms taken without consent to outlawing any false statements used to get hired by a farm with the intent of documenting it. Soon the first laws passed in Iowa (the state with the most factory farms nationwide), Utah, and Missouri.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire, Indiana, Nebraska and Arkansas have all made moves toward passing ag-gag bills in the last few months, while Pennsylvania and Tennessee have them pending.

And this week, a bill in Wyoming made considerable headway toward being signed into law (it was approved by the house, but as yet to pass through the state senate). On a similar, if perhaps more draconian note, Food Safety News reported this week that a senator in Illinois introduced a bill “calling for criminal charges to be brought against anyone who makes a complaint about the inhumane treatment of animals that is found to be ‘false or unfounded’ by the state Department of Agriculture.”

All this leads one to wonder: Isn’t it bad enough that our current food system has so little built-in transparency that people have to go undercover in some of the worst working conditions in the free world just to keep things from getting worse?

Don’t eaters need more transparency, rather than less? I’d be willing to bet that most factory farm investigators would gladly give up their jobs. Just not for this reason.

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