The year 2012 has seen the reintroduction of ag-gag bills in multiple states across the USA. These so called “ag-gag” laws make it illegal for anyone to obtain photographs, video, or audio recordings from agricultural farms, and in some cases, even criminalize the mere distribution of such recordings. Ag-gag laws were proposed, but not passed, in several states in 2010 and 2011, in response to the surge of undercover investigations on factory farming. This year, the bills are back in swing, pending legislation in at least five states, including New York, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Nebraska, and have already been passed into law in Iowa, the nation’s largest pork producer.
Although the wording differs slightly from bill to bill, as do the penalties for violation, each bill seeks the same end: to silence whistle blowers with their eyes on industrial farming. It is no coincidence that these bills appear just as food safety and animal rights activists are making huge strides in uncovering the horrors of factory farming, just as it is no coincidence that these bills are drafted by and lobbied for by industrial farmers. The bills all have strong ties to ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. This “super-lobby” group drafts model bills, which are introduced to legislatures without anyone knowing of the bills’ origins. The bills are also tied to various meat and meat-related companies. As campaign contributions from the agriculture industry cumulate to more than $1 million since 2010, indisputable evidence of the direct correlation is leaking out. Casey Guernsey of the Missouri House of Representatives acknowledged that he supports the bill because it is necessary to “protect an industry that drives the economy” of Missouri; never mind the necessity to protect the public’s health. Concerns of the economy always seem to trump ethics.
It is all too understandable why factory farmers would want to keep hungry eaters in the dark. Research shows that following reports exposing modern animal agriculture, general meat consumption of the public lowers for up to six months. In 2008, Hallmark Meat Packing Company of Chino, California, was shut down after undercover investigations from The Humane Society of the United States brought forth footage depicting workers beating sick cows, striking those too crippled to walk into kill pens, and even ramming animals with forklifts. This company, which recalled 143 million pounds of meat (the largest recall in history) after the USDA saw footage and deemed the meat unfit for human consumption due to lack of complete and proper inspection, was also the nation’s second largest supplier to the National School Lunch Program. How about putting some of those pictures on the side of a milk carton? Appalling animal abuse as well as the true, unfiltered representation of the dangerously poor quality of our meat is enough to make anyone put off by a burger for several months. And unfortunately this company is just one of many.
The scariest part of this mess may be the meat industry’s response to the unveiling of norms at factory farms. How does the industry respond to the public slowly being educated on the inhumane and unsanitary ways in which food is raised? Do they work to reform their ways, abolishing each method that adds to the diminishment of nutrition, environmental health, and animal wellbeing? Nope. Instead they work as fast as they can to cover it all up. Eradicating their factory farms of the disgusting practices shown in undercover footage would mean a complete reform for the entire industry. So instead they work to build a thicker barrier between their everyday practices and public knowledge. It’s got to make you wonder, just what is the industry so desperately trying to hide?
Though the footage of farm investigations is hard to stomach, it is vital to the animal rights movement. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture of baby chicks being thrown into a grinder alive is worth the recall of a thousand eggs. We need to protect the rights of these animals just as we need to protect our rights as consumers to know what exactly is in our food. It should be a basic freedom of every individual to know where our food comes from and how it is raised. Poll after poll shows that Americans across all party lines are in support of treating animals humanely, regardless of cost. A survey taken of Iowa voters directly addressing Iowa’s new ag-gag law shows that only 21% of voters are in support of it. Consumers want to know how our food is produced. If the meat industry refuses to provide an accurate portrayal of this, then it is our right and our duty to find out through other means. The undercover investigations, which sadly are the few accurate illustrations of how our meat is produced, should be lit with a spotlight, free for all to see and learn from, not shut in the dark, covered by corporate interests. Supporters of the bills claim they are necessary for the health and safety of our farms, but if factory farms were properly regulated to be healthy and humane, then there would be no need to conceal these practices. They would welcome the mindful consumer, not criminalize his assets.
These ag-gag laws are an assault on our values and rights as Americans. They are a violation of our first amendment rights to free speech and free press, and they constitute a huge step back from our American principles. If Ag-gag bills continue to pass and make undercover investigations illegal, there is no knowing where this will end. Mercy For Animal’s executive director, Nathan Runkle, states, “Not only will this ag-gag law perpetuate animal abuse, it endangers workers’ rights, consumer health and safety, and the freedom of journalists, employees, and the public at large to share information about something as fundamental as our food supply.” Our basic American principles hold “freedom and justice for all” above all else. Let us defend these values even in the face of large companies whose ties run deep in government. Let us exercise our right to unveil truths, which will be held as self-evident when given the opportunity to transcend. Let us be savvy consumers for our sakes as well as that of Mother Earth and all those whom we share her with. Let freedom ring.