New Ag-Gag Law Pits Dairy Against Greek Yogurt—and Animal Rights

Many whistleblower and activist activities will now be considered crimes in Idaho.

(Photo: Jan Scherders/Getty Images)

Mar 4, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The urbanite breakfast du jour is colliding with rural, dairy-state politics in Idaho, where Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a farm protection bill into law on Friday. Senate Bill 1337 is widely considered to be an “ag-gag” law, the kind of legislation that makes it illegal to make audio or video recordings of any agriculture facility without explicit permission from the owner, among other acts that might be undertaken by animal rights activists. By signing S.B. 1337 and becoming the seventh state to enact such a law—and the first to pass legislation in two years—Gov. Otter ignored a plea from Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya to veto the bill. In 2012, the yogurt company opened one of the world’s largest yogurt plants in Twin Falls, Idaho. Ulukaya told The New York Times that the $450 million factory, which employs 300 workers, was expected to have a $1.3 billion impact on Idaho’s economy. The state’s dairy business is worth $2.4 billion as a whole.

The Chobani founder told Gov. Otter the bill “would limit transparency and make some instances of exposing the mistreatment of animals in the state punishable by imprisonment.” Last year, a video released by Mercy for Animals showed employees at Bettencourt Dairies in Hansen, Idaho, viciously beating dairy cows. The undercover video led to criminal animal abuse charges for a number of workers at the facility. One of the men filed a guilty plea for misdemeanor animal abuse in January.

The bill is broad in the protections it offers agriculture facilities, which it counts as anything from a farm to a facility that processes animal feed. Under S.B. 1337, the Mercy for Animals investigation would constitute a crime. Under the new law, the following activities would be punishable as a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail, a $5,000 fine, and restitution: entering a facility “by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass”; obtaining records by similar means; getting a job at a facility “with the intent to cause economic or other injury to the facility’s operations"; making unauthorized audio or video recordings; and damaging facilities.

As we reported last year, critics of ag-gag laws, see these bills as scare measures on behalf of the farming industry and its political allies, geared at creating a chilling effect on animal rights and whistleblower activities rather than prosecuting any crimes.

The first person to be arrested for violating one of the new ag-gag laws, Utah resident Amy Meyer, had the charges against her dropped.

In Idaho, the story of money appears to have less to do with the state’s economy than it does with political clout. While Chobani’s investment in the state may be significant, the dairy industry’s funding of elected officials reaches much deeper into state politics. A local NBC affiliate reports that one-third of state senators, one-fifth of state representatives, and the governor have all received campaign donations from the dairy industry.