Ag-gag bills: Criminalizing whistleblowing on factory farms

Ag-gag bills protect factory farms at the price of the animals, small farmers, the consumer, the environment, and freedom of the press Photo: by *CA* Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2013- A number of recent polls show that a majority of Americans think that animals raised for food deserve some level of protection from harm and exploitation.   Even self- described “meat-eating conservative Republican” Mary Matalin has sided with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to fight against so-called “ag-gag” bills.   

(Matalin has gone as far as filming a new ad for PETA, and the unusual alliance has apparently already paid off: Arkansas lawmakers have just abandoned a proposed “ag-gag” bill.)

SEE RELATED: Frankenveggies: Monsanto Protection Act passes Senate

“Ag-gag” bills are laws that criminalize whistleblowing on factory farms.  Even though ag-gag bills differ from state to state, they share a few common elements including criminalizing the taking of pictures or video at a factory farms without authorization, banning investigators from taking jobs at factory farms, and compelling mandatory reporting within short timelines that would make it impossible to establish punishable patterns of abuse.

Ag-gag bills have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.   Iowa and Utah have already passed ag-gag laws.  Iowa’s HF 589 criminalizes activists who take jobs in factory farms with the purpose of exposing welfare abuses; Utah prohibits the “surreptitious” taking of video or pictures altogether.  Ag-gag bills have been set aside for this session in New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

The proposed bills differ between states, for example, in the California bill (AB 343), videotaping and pictures are allowed, but only of they are turned into authorities within 48 hours. Opponents of the bill argue that this time constraint will prevent investigators from proving a pattern of abuse, and allow only for proof of isolated incidents which rarely amount to enough to prompt a legal investigation.  Proposed laws in Tennessee and Nebraska are similar. 

Many of the bills not only punish the activists who take pictures and film, but potentially carry penalties for media and advocacy organizations that publicize the material.  Even the bills that seem more lenient, like California’s AB 343, are really nothing but the industry’s attempt to continue inhumane practices without any oversight whatsoever. 

SEE RELATED: Mislabeled fish: Widespread seafood fraud in the U.S.

Why do factory farms, slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants, and livestock ranches want to hide abuse?  According to Cody Carlson in a recent piece in The Atlantic, footage and pictures of inhumane treatment (like the 2008 video of a California meatpacking plant’s employees prodding and pushing sick cows into the slaughter pit with forklifts) result in public outcry, plant closures, expensive recalls, heavy fines, and even criminal charges for employees of factory farms. 

Unlike Europe, where farmers are protected from being undercut by those who would use inhumane practices, in the U.S. there is no such protection.  Honest, humane farmers who treat their animals with dignity cannot compete with large companies that cut the beaks off chickens and use gestation crates where pigs cannot turn around for their entire lives to cut a few cents off their products. 

In contrast, the EU has banned gestation crates for pigs and barren battery cages for laying hens.  It also has certain minimum humane requirements for all kinds of livestock and provides incentives for farmers to go beyond these minimum requirements by offering certifications, marketing assistance, cost defrayments, and training to farmers.  In the EU, farmers who want to treat their animals humanely can do so while remaining competitive. 

Unfortunately, the same is not true in the U.S.  Without similar protection, American farmers cannot compete with large farms unless they adopt the same cost-cutting inhumane practices that large agribusiness does. 

On the other side, Ag-gag law proponents state that they are defending farmers’ privacy and property.  “At the end of the day it’s about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy,” said Bill Meierling, spokesman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank, to NPR.  “You wouldn’t want me coming into your home with a hidden camera.”  The thing is, I don’t grow or slaughter food for commercial sale in my home. 

Why should farming practices be private?  How does the right of factory farms to protect themselves from negative press balance with consumers’ right to know where their food comes from and make informed decisions?  The issue is not merely one of animal cruelty, but also of threat to public health and the environment.

Ag-gag bills protect factory farms at the price of the animals, small farmers, the consumer, the environment, and freedom of the press, and should not be passed into law by state governments.  

See the text of each proposed ag-gag bill, which lawmaker sponsored it, who voted for it, etc. (PDFs):

Arkansas: SB13 and SB14

California: AB 343, sign petition

Indiana: SB373 and SB391, sign petition

Nebraska: LB204, sign petition

Pennsylvania: HB683, sign petition

Tennessee: SB1248 and HB1191, sign petition

Vermont: S. 162, sign petition

At least not all states are going backwards. New Jersey’s state assembly voted on a bill earlier in March banning gestation crates on hog farms.   Activists and regular voters alike are crossing their fingers that the state senate will ratify it and Governor Chris Christie will sign it into law. 


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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