Why Big Ag Wants to Keep the Cameras Away

A new wave of state ag-gag laws seek to criminalize meat-industry whistleblowers.

ag-gag laws

Georges Franju's slaughterhouse documentary, The Blood of the Beasts.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

AB 343 was pulled from the California Assembly yesterday. The bill, authored by Jim Patterson, a Republican lawmaker from Fresno, was yet another example of an ag-gag law: legislation that seeks to criminalize the act of undercover documentation of animal abuse. The California law would have required any evidence of mistreatment to be handed over to the authorities within two days of the incident, or the witness would have to pay a $500 fine. In other states, undercover investigation of any kind in slaughterhouses and processing facilities is now illegal—full stop.

That’s the case in Iowa, where the current wave of ag-gag laws started last year, when Governor Terry Branstad signed House File 589 into law. Elected most recently in 2010, Branstad is something of a conservative mirror of California Governor Jerry Brown—he first served as the Republican Governor of the Hawkeye state from 1983 to 1999. During that first stint in office, in 1995, he signed House File 519 into law, which stripped agriculture zoning control away from local authorities, allowing for a precipitous rise in factory farming operations throughout the state. After 18 years of growth and consolidation—the state lost 72 percent of its hog farmers between 1994 and 2010—Branstad followed up on his deregulatory move by cordoning off the industry from investigation (the act that precedes informed criticism) with the ag-gag law.

One of the biggest agriculture states in the country—Iowa was home to nearly 18 million hogs and over 52 million laying hens in 2007 (according to the last USDA agricultural census)—corporate agriculture interests in the state can now operate with impunity. And if you think that Iowa only plays a national role once every four years, during the caucus, consider where the eggs at your supermarket were laid, or where the pork chops in the meat aisle were reared. Iowa produces more than twice as many eggs as any other state, and those aren’t only for local, Cool Hand Luke-like consumption: The ag-gag law has national implications.

Combined with new, similar legislation in Missouri and Utah; long-standing laws in North Dakota, Montana and Kansas; and other potential bills being considered in as many as a dozen states, this strong tact away from transparency is a threat not only to animal welfare, but to consumer’s rights, worker’s rights, and general corporate accountability.

In 2002, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released draft legislation related to animal rights whistleblowers. The title of the bill? “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.” As events in Boston have reminded us, the T-word is hugely charged in American culture, and even if the specter of radical animal activists brings to mind a very different cliché than that of a bearded Islamic terrorist, the later is tragically, nearly irreparably tied to the former. To call someone a terrorist, especially in 2002, is to go more than a few steps beyond protecting the business interests of any given sector.

If, instead of helping to expose gross animal abuse, whistleblowers or investigative journalists were branded with a scarlet letter that put them in league with Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Shabaab, etc., the focus might be shifted away from the conditions in any given facility and refocused on the means of acquiring the evidence.

No state has adopted ALEC’s title, but similarly inflammatory language is featured in a bill that’s currently in conference committee in Indiana. The proposed legislation suggests that farmers have the right to “engage in agricultural operations free from the threat of terrorism and interference from unauthorized third persons.”

If ag-gag laws are about protecting farmers from the threat of terrorism, or at least an attempt at coopting the heightened emotions and base good-versus-evil dichotomy of the war on terror, then it seems fair to map the anti-war argument onto the ag-gag debate too. Because, in many ways, the efforts to sanitize the horror of death (and torture) in war and steps taken to do the same in a slaughterhouse are based on the same basic tactic: Don’t allow the public to see it.

Which makes images of workers burning and breaking off the beaks of baby chickens, of hens being packed into cages with the rotting corpses of other birds not unlike the photos of detainees being tortured in Abu Ghraib. The egg farm images, shot by an ABC investigative reporter, reduce verbiage-heavy debates about battery cages, debeaking, etc., into something simple and unassailable; there’s no room for questioning if what’s depicted is or isn’t abuse, is or isn’t morally and ethically wrong.

That’s not to say that abusing farm animals is the equivalent of the injustices American soldiers subjected detainees to in Abu Ghraib. But the photos cut through the vagueness of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s doublespeak, of President George W. Bush’s reductive nationalism. You cannot look at those pictures and think we’re indisputably the good guys, fighting for American freedom. Just as you cannot look at photos of slaughterhouse abuse and think that the actions are justifiable and necessary, just part of the everyday business of feeding Americans.

I’m not a vegetarian, but there’s a very specific reason that I avoid eating veal. In a film class I took in college, in which we watched such uplifting features as Shoah and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, I had to watch calves being decapitated at a French slaughterhouse, the headless, twitching bodies bleeding out dramatically. The footage came from Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts.

The short black-and-white film (which is available on YouTube) graphically depicts numerous animals being killed, the slaughterhouse workers quickly dispatching the bodies into smaller and smaller portions, each cut moving the object further away from being identifiably a dead animal and closer to the chops and steaks that exist in the comfortable context of the kitchen or dinner table.

Franju’s camera witnesses the violence with the same practiced lack of emotion as the meat cutters, and the narration is beyond dry. The tone suggests that you shouldn’t be shocked by what’s taking place; the imagery makes it impossible not to be.

Critics widely consider the film to be an allegory of Nazism and the Holocaust, the slaughterhouse setting showing how society can not only be desensitized, but even depend upon and encourage unspeakable atrocities. Within the context of the ag-gag debate, Franju’s unvarnished gaze might be worth repurposing—but not to put Big Ag in league with Hitler (which would be more reductive than associating PETA with the Palestine Liberation Front). Rather, Blood of the Beast might drive consumers to ask themselves how much they enforce personal ag-gag laws. How willing are we to face the reality of the meat industry, even when its at its most humane?

Blood of the Beasts has made it so I will forever associate blanquette de veau and veal scaloppini with those bleeding calves, the trauma of that image turning even the most delicious dish bitter on my tongue. But that was an image made readily available to me, and I’m able to make a choice in terms of what I buy and eat based on that and other visual knowledge of what animals go through in order to become the meat I consume. As much as I wouldn’t want a fellow journalist prosecuted for trying to make those abuses public, I don’t want to be a consumer trying to navigate a marketplace awash in pastoral imagery and labels without such irrefutable images providing necessary checks and balances. 

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