Agriculture must be more proactive on “ag gag” and animal cruelty standards

dairy cattle abuse animal cruelty ag gag bills law undercover video mercy for animals
Mercy for Animals is one group frequently collecting, keeping, and later releasing footage of animal abuse. Why hold on to the footage? Why not report the abuse immediately?

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity for a great chat with an Associated Press reporter out of Iowa on the subject of “ag gag” bills and laws. I’ve written about this series of bills earlier on this blog (perspective from Tennessee, on CNN Eatocracy, how they affect farm transparency, and asking if consumers really want to see where their food comes from). It’s my opinion that the “ag gag” bills are a lost cause in the eyes of consumer perception. They have come across as if agriculture is trying to hide something, rather than protect themselves from activists with intentions to do harm.

Many of the bills have required that record of animal abuse be turn over to law enforcement within a certain period of time after obtaining said evidence. I struggle to see how that is “gagging” those wanting to report abuse, neglect and cruelty. Several opponents of the laws want to expose modern, conventional agriculture practices for what they really believe they are – a system of abuse and torture that is unhealthy for the animals and our environment.

I truly believe it is past time that we take a more proactive approach to the issues, address the problems of isolated abuse ourselves by establishing and maintaining standards, defining what is animal abuse/neglect/cruelty and holding those accountable who violate those standards. A critical part of this proactive approach will be to communicate with the public those definitions and standards we have in place, sharing the systems we have in place that ensure proper treatment and hold ourselves accountable.

This isn’t a big vs small agriculture issue as many would like it to be. I’ve personally experienced working in family and corporate owned livestock operations and will attest that the larger guys can have better standards in place to train and hold people accountable for their actions compared to many small, family operations. But that goes both ways too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How can agriculture address the issue ourselves, in a more proactive manner, and better meet the standards that consumers expect of their food supply chain?

2 ag-gag laws facing federal court challenges

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The years-long fight between farm organizations and animal rights activists over laws prohibiting secretly filmed documentation of animal abuse is moving from state legislatures to federal courts as laws in Utah and Idaho face constitutional challenges.

Half of U.S. states have attempted to pass so-called ag-gag laws, but only seven have been successful. Among them are Idaho, where this year’s law says unauthorized recording is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, and Utah, whose 2012 law makes it a crime to provide false information to gain access to a farm. Both states now face separate but similarly worded lawsuits that say the measures violate federal statutes offering whistle-blower protections and free-speech guarantees.

Farm organizations and livestock producers say ag-gag laws are aimed at protecting their homes and businesses from intruders, and some plan to use social media to ensure the public they have nothing to hide. But animal rights groups, free-speech activists and investigative journalists want to throw out the laws because they say the secrecy puts consumers at higher risk of food safety problems and animals at higher risk of abuse.

Numerous investigations have taken place on farms in the past decade, leading to “food safety recalls, citations for environmental and labor violations, evidence of health code violations, plant closures, criminal convictions, and civil litigation,” the Idaho lawsuit says.

One such investigation was conducted by the Humane Society of the United States in Chino, California in 2007, and led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Undercover video at a slaughterhouse showed cows too weak or sick to walk dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high pressure hoses. It was released after three attempts to get the facility’s USDA inspectors to do something, and the government ended up recalling 143 million pounds of meat, including 37 million pounds intended for the school lunch program.

“These ag gag laws are putting the public at risk and they further erode what trust there is among Americans for the meat industry,” said Paul Shapiro, the society’s vice president of farm animal production.

Well aware of the image and trust problems that the investigations and subsequent laws have created, some farm groups have decided to change their strategy — forgoing the usual political channels and instead communicating to the public the scope and use of animal care standards.

“We’re going to step up now and figure out how to address the issue within our own community rather than relying on legislation to block information,” said Ryan Goodman, spokesman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “We do want to be open and transparent with the public and not come across as if were trying to hide something because were not. We’re just trying to protect our own families and businesses.”

The livestock group has various social media accounts, including on Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. He also writes a blog. “That comes across communicating the message a lot better than saying we went to the Legislature and lobbied on this issue,” Goodman said.

Another concern about some undercover investigations is that video is edited down to short clips and narrated to distort the truth, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said.

“People were essentially creating false narratives and getting on farms and actually not even representing what was happening on those farms,” he said. “We want to make sure bad stuff isn’t happening out there. If somebody is doing something wrong it needs to stop, but some will try and paint the whole industry as those handful of outliers.”

Chris Green, a spokesman for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which along with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a plaintiff in both lawsuits, said farm groups should be concerned about the public’s perception that slaughterhouses and farms are operating in the dark.

“There’s this pro-whistleblowing sentiment that exists in the U.S. populace,” Green said “Anything that indicates anti-whistleblowing indicates someone is trying to hide something from the American people and that doesn’t bode well.”

Other states, including those who’ve tried and failed to pass ag-gag laws, will watch closely to see whether these two constitutional challenges hold up. But they might be waiting a while: The Idaho lawsuit, though recently filed, is not yet set for trial and deadlines for motions stretch into next year, and Utah’s is also just getting started.

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