As state legislatures begin their 2013 sessions, a flurry of new “ag gag” bills to protect factory farms from potential undercover whistleblowers have been introduced in 5 states. This week, the Indiana Senate is debating a proposal to criminalize taking photographs or videos inside an agricultural or industrial operation without permission.
Since trespassing is already illegal, ag gag laws can only have one clear motive: to punish whistleblowers, advocates, and investigative reporters who use undercover recordings to reveal the abysmal conditions in which our food is produced. Undercover investigations have captured factory farms all over the country abusing livestock, passing off sick cattle as healthy, and discharging unregulated amounts of animal manure, which the US Geological Survey identified as the largest source of nitrogen pollution in the country.
The bill’s author, Sen. Travis Holdman (R), added a provision exempting anyone who turns over their video or photos to law enforcement within 48 hours — as long as they do not also share the footage with non-law enforcement, such as media or an animal rights group. But, as the Indy Star points out, many exposés are “undertaken precisely because the authorities failed to do their job. Sometimes, they have spotlighted conditions that were not illegal but were disturbing enough to inspire new laws.”
Indeed, factory farms have largely escaped regulatory and legal scrutiny. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned an effort to require these operations to report even basic information like location, number of animals, and amount of manure discharged. Meanwhile, the meat lobby’s grip on lawmakers is so powerful that the USDA was pressured into apologizing for an internal “Meatless Monday” last year by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who claimed the optional vegetarian day was a full-scale attack on agriculture.
One USDA inspector even had his job threatened after he tried to report egregious violations at a California slaughterhouse. He then tipped off the Humane Society, which released an infamous video of employees torturing and slaughtering downer cows (sick cows deemed “unfit for human food” by the USDA). The video triggered the largest beef recall in U.S. history and resulted in an unprecedented $500 million penalty.
In March of last year, Iowa became the first state to pass an ag gag law in two decades. It is now illegal to seek employment at Iowan factory farms under false pretenses. Not by coincidence, the bill was formulated soon after a 2010 Humane Society undercover exposé of Iowa egg farms went viral. Cody Carlson, one of the egg farm investigators, took an entry-level job at four different farms and wore a pinhole camera to work every day. As he reported in the Atlantic:
At each facility, I witnessed disturbing trends of extreme animal cruelty and dangerously unsanitary conditions. Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.
Just a few months later, several Iowa egg farms were fingered in a massive salmonella outbreak that led to the biggest egg recall in U.S. history.
Ag gag laws are already on the books in Iowa, Missouri, Utah, North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas. If Indiana and the 5 other states mulling these bills follow suit, the facilities producing 99 percent of American meat will be completely shielded from the public eye.