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Inside Ag-Gag Bills

Another Assault by Corporations on Consumers’ Right to Know

by KATHERINE PAUL AND RONNIE CUMMINS

How do you keep consumers in the dark about the horrors of factory farms? By making it an “act of terrorism” for anyone to investigate animal cruelty, food safety or environmental violations on the corporate-controlled farms that produce the bulk of our meat, eggs and dairy products.

And who better to write the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, designed to protect Big Ag and Big Energy, than the lawyers on the Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force at the corporate-funded and infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

New Hampshire, Wyoming and Nebraska are the latest states to introduce Ag-Gag laws aimed at preventing employees, journalists or activists from exposing illegal or unethical practices on factory farms. Lawmakers in 10 other states introduced similar bills in 2011-2012. The laws passed in three of those states: Missouri, Iowa and Utah. But consumer and animal-welfare activists prevented the laws from passing in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Tennessee.

In all, six states now have Ag-Gag laws, including North Dakota, Montana and Kansas, all of which passed the laws in 1990-1991, before the term “Ag-Gag” was coined.

Ag-Gag laws passed 20 years ago were focused more on deterring people from destroying property, or from either stealing animals or setting them free. Today’s ALEC-inspired bills take direct aim at anyone who tries to expose horrific acts of animal cruelty, dangerous animal-handling practices that might lead to food safety issues, or blatant disregard for environmental laws designed to protect waterways from animal waste runoff. In the past, most of those exposes have resulted from undercover investigations of exactly the type Big Ag wants to make illegal.

Wyoming’s HB 0126 is the perfect example of a direct link between an undercover investigation of a factory farm and the introduction of an Ag-Gag law. The bill was introduced mere weeks after nine factory workers at Wheatland-WY-based Wyoming Premium Farms, a supplier to Tyson Foods, were charged with animal cruelty following an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). HSUS activists videotaped workers kicking live piglets, swinging them by their hind legs and beating and kicking mother pigs. Charges were filed in late December. In January, State Rep. Sue Wallis and Senator Ogden Driskill introduced Wyoming’s Ag-Gag bill which would make it a criminal act to carry out investigations such as the one that exposed the cruelty at Wyoming Premium Farms.

Wallis and Driskill both have ties to Big Ag. Wallis was the subject of a conflict-of-interest complaint filed in 2010 by animal welfare groups. The groups accused of improper and fraudulent abuse of her position as a legislator after she introduced a bill allowing the Wyoming Livestock Board to send stray horses to slaughter. At the time she introduced the bill, Wallis also was planning to develop a family-owned horse slaughter plant in the state. Both Wallis and Driskill are members of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. Driskill has accepted political contributions from the livestock industry and Exxon Mobil, a member of ALEC.

Most of the Ag-Gag laws introduced since 2011 borrow the premise, if not the exact language, from model legislation designed by ALEC. ALEC’s sole purpose is to write model legislation that protects corporate profits. Industry then pushes state legislators to adapt the bills for their states and push them through. The idea behind the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act is to make it illegal to “enter an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”

In other words, these laws turn journalists and the investigators of crimes into criminals.

Many of the legislators involved in ramming through state Ag-Gag bills have ties to ALEC, including Missouri’s Rep. Casey Guernsey. Guernsey’s top donor in 2010 was Smithfield Foods, itself a target of undercover investigations that exposed widespread abuse of pigs. Of the 60 Iowa lawmakers who voted for Iowa’s Ag-Gag laws, at least 14 of them, or 23%, are members of ALEC.

ALEC’s interest in large-scale factory farm operations, or in industry-speak, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), can be traced to one of its staunchest members, Koch Industries. Koch Industries once owned the Koch Beef Company, one of the largest cattle feeders in the U.S. When neighbors of one of the company’s huge cattle-feeding operations opposed a planned expansion, claiming it would pose health concerns, Koch persuaded local legislators to rule in its favor. ALEC subsequently wrote the “Right to Farm Act,” a bill to bar lawsuits by citizens claiming that neighboring farms, including industrial farms, are fouling their air and water.

Ag-Gag bills a threat to animals, public health and the environment

Under U.S. laws, farm animals don’t get the same protection as other animals, such as dogs and cats. Anti-free speech Ag-Gag bills only serve to leave farm animals even more vulnerable to the routine pain and suffering on factory farms. The three federal statutes that address animal welfare, including the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, do not apply to animals raised for food. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act regulates animals raised for food, but applies exclusively to slaughterhouses, where animals may spend only a short time before they are killed. That leaves the states to regulate the often-barbarous treatment of animals raised for food. But as we’ve seen with the Ag-Gag bills, state laws often are written by big corporations. Nowhere is that more obvious than in states where cruel methods of treating animals are exempted from state laws on the basis of their being classified as “customary.” Who decides a certain practice is “customary” even if most thinking people would consider that practice cruel? Corporations that own and operate CAFOs in that state.

Apart from the obvious ethical concerns, Ag-Gag laws also threaten public health and the environment, and undermine workers’ rights and free speech laws. Undercover investigations at factory farms have exposed the mishandling of meat, eggs and milk in ways that could potentially lead to health risks including mad cow disease, salmonella, e-coli and others in Chino, Calif., revealed widespread mistreatment of “downed” cows – cows that are too sick or injured to walk. The facility is the second-largest supplier of beef to USDA’s Commodity Procurement Branch, which distributes the beef to the National School Lunch Program.

Ag-Gag bills also keep employees and others from blowing the whistle on environmental violations. Huge amounts of waste are generated by the billions of cows, pigs and chickens on factory farms. Much of that waste, full of antibiotics, growth promoters and synthetic hormones, finds its way into our waterways and municipal water supplies. State and federal laws require CAFOs to minimize their environmental damage, but the laws are often not enforced. One of the ways to expose violations is through undercover investigations.

And then there’s the matter of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has been an outspoken opponent of Ag-Gag bills. In a letter opposing the proposed Ag-Gag law in New Hampshire, the executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union wrote that the proposed law “has serious implications for two fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and New Hampshire constitutions: the right to freedom of expression and the right against self-incrimination.”

There’s still time to stop Ag-Gag laws in New Hampshire, Wyoming and Nebraska

The majority of Americans see Ag-Gag laws for what they are: just another attack on consumers’ right to know. According to a poll conducted last year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 71% of Americans oppose the laws. When consumers learn that 99% of the animals raised for food are raised in factory farms, they generally agree that lawmakers should focus on strengthening animal cruelty laws, not prosecuting the whistleblowers.

It was public outrage that killed proposed bills in seven states last year. Here are the three latest bills to be introduced, and links to petitions telling lawmakers in New Hampshire, Wyoming and Nebraska to reject the proposed laws:

New Hampshire: HB110

Primary sponsor: Bob Haefner (R) ; Co-sponsors: Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff (D), Rep. Tara Sad (D), Senator Sharon Carson (R), and Bob Odell (R)

This is a 7-line bill written to look as if its main concern is the protection of animals. However the bill would require whistleblowers to report animal abuse and turn over videotapes, photographs and documents within 24 hours or face prosecution – a clear attempt to intimidate and deter people from conducting undercover investigations. Lawmakers know that in order for anyone to prove a pattern of abuse in factory farms, they must document repeated instances of cruelty. A video or photograph of only one instance will be dismissed as a one-time anomaly, which will get the agribusiness company off the hook.

Sign the petition to stop New Hampshire’s AG-GAG bill.

Wyoming: HB0126

Co-sponsors: Rep. Sue Wallis (R), Sen. Ogden Driskill (R)

Introduced within weeks after nine workers at a Wyoming factory farm were charged with abuse. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Wallis, is planning to build horse slaughterhouses in Wyoming and other states. If this bill had been law in 2012, it would have prevented activists from exposing horrific acts of cruelty at Wheatland-WY-based Wyoming Premium Farms, a supplier to Tyson Foods.

Sign the petition to stop Wyoming’s AG-GAG bill.

Nebraska: LB 204

Introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson (R), Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh (R), and Sen. Ken Schilz (R)

The bill would make it a Class IV felony for any person to obtain employment at an animal facility with the broadly defined “intent to disrupt the normal operations,” It would require animal abuse reports to be filed within 12 hours. Co-sponsor Sen. Launtenbaugh has advocated in the past for horse slaughtering.

Sign the petition to stop Nebraska’s AG-GAG bill.

Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins work for the Organic Consumers Association