Protecting ag or silencing activists?

Protecting ag or silencing activists?

"Warning: Disturbing Content. View Discretion is Advised."

This is the warning on videos from the animal-rights group, Mercy For Animals. And the warning is justified, because what viewers are about to witness are some of the most malicious, deplorable and horrific acts that can be done to animals.

For more than 10 years, Mercy For Animals, and other groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have been conducting undercover video operations on farms and slaughterhouses across the country.

Through these videos, activist groups have been able to alter the landscape of agriculture by forcing food recalls, getting grocers and restaurants to terminate contracts with suppliers, and compelling the public to question the ethics of consuming animal products. Convincing states to alter animal housing or handling practices has also been an outcome of the videos.

Now, the agricultural community is fighting back in a number of states by enacting farm protection legislation, commonly referred to as "ag-gag bills."

Workplace dilemma

Seven states thus far have approved farm protection laws, while other states have voted down or vetoed such proposals.

In order for animal activists to gain access to a farm, they have to seek employment. To do so, the activists will typically falsify information on their resumes or job applications. Aggag bills seek to prevent this type of activity, while also limiting undercover videotaping and photography within animal agricultural operations by requiring the consent of the owner.

Several of the bills make it a crime for the activists not to report abuse within a 24- or 48-hour period of time.

One of the states currently waging battle with the animal- rights groups is North Carolina. The state has proposed a bill making it illegal to lie or fraudulently misrepresent who you are in order to gain access to an operation. It also sets a 24-hour time limit on reporting abuse and allows the use of video, audio or photography.

HSUS has already targeted North Carolina with a television advertising campaign encouraging viewers to contact their legislators to vote "no" on the bill.

Not everyone is buying it.

"It is extremely disappointing that a national group (HSUS) would stoop to such misrepresentation of a bill and lead the public to believe the business community is in favor of animal abuse of any kind. Nothing is further from the truth," says Gary Salamido, vice president of government affairs for the North Carolina Chamber, in an organization press release about the advertisement. "The debate and lies surrounding this issue are distracting from a bill that not only ends abuse, theft or any other on-the-job illegal activity more quickly but also has two other major components to better use taxpayer dollars and to protect consumers from dangerous financing schemes."

Kim Alboum, North Carolina state director for the HSUS, supplied the counterargument in a statement, "Rather than trying to prevent animal cruelty and food safety problems, this bill shows that the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce"s intent is to keep Americans in the dark. Undercover investigations expose abuses that would otherwise remain hidden behind closed barn doors."

Can"t shield everything

"Consumers, as you know, have been deeply affected by the oft-posted videos that are so deplored by your industry," Katy Keiffer, host and producer of a food politics and policy show on the Heritage Radio Network, told those attending the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit in Arlington, Va.

"Tell people what the problems are," Keiffer says. "Don"t hide behind these legislative farm protection bills or the rhetoric of terrorism."

Ag-gag bills may not be the answer to shielding animal agriculture from the court of public opinion.

"These videos display egregious cruelty to animals," she says. "To pretend it isn"t happening or ascribe that behavior to ‘just a few rotten eggs" suggest to consumers that you don"t really care and that you are really hiding industry wide abuse." Keiffer knows this isn"t the case across all of agriculture, as she has toured meat-processing facilities and has hosted such animal agriculture professionals as Temple Grandin on her radio show.

"Agriculture is a hugely important industry to the United States. It employs hundreds of thousands of workers and supports thousands of ancillary businesses. The industry has created extraordinary systems and efficiencies that have had a worldwide impact. Producers have a lot to be proud of. There"s a lot to praise here," says Keiffer.

How would it look on YouTube?

Also appearing at the Animal Ag Alliance Stakeholders Summit was Andy Vance, a contributing writer for Feedstuffs. Although he grew up on a farm and has had direct experience in agriculture, he approached the subject as a journalist.

"I"m a big advocate of webcams. If you"ve got nothing to hide, then show me," he said.

Many large agricultural producers and processing plants are already utilizing webcams as a part of their auditing programs to help prevent animal mistreatment. The one downside is these videos are typically only sent back to the company doing the auditing — not the public.

Vance agreed with Keiffer that the legislative laws being proposed at the state level to censor undercover videos by activists is a bit absurd.

"They are viewed by the average reporter and the average consumer as an attempt to suppress whistle-blowers," says Vance. "I don"t care if that"s not the intent of the legislation, that"s what it looks like on television."

Ultimately, the amount of transparency and accountability presented to the public is left up to the individual producer or operation.

"You have to ask yourself for a minute, if what"s happening on my farm, processing facility, or business was on YouTube, would it look good to the average person on the street?" Vance said. "If the answer is ‘yes," hallelujah, move on. If the answer is ‘no," then you have to say, ‘How can I fix this? How can I YouTube-proof this?"

"Now, if the issue is animal husbandry and not abuse, we have a lot of work to do there, don"t we?"

Protecting ag or silencing activists?

Ag-gag over the years

The recent phenomenon of undercover video has led to public distrust in agriculture and created the need for states to stop secret recordings at farms through legislation.

A few states were ahead of the trend enacting farm protection laws over 20 years ago. However, the majority of the country is just now approaching the issue — and it has seen mixed results.

In 1990, Kansas passed the first farm protection legislation that prevented photography or videotaping in an animal facility without the consent of the owner. The primary intent of this law was to prevent criminal tampering or damage being done to facilities by activists. Montana and North Dakota passed similar laws the following year.

Farm protection bills remained dormant until Iowa sent a bill to the Legislature in 2011 prohibiting the production, possession or distribution of an image or sound recorded at an animal facility without the consent of the owner. The bill eventually became law during the start of 2012. Florida, New York and Minnesota also had legislation proposed in 2011, but the bills did not make it to a vote.

Later in 2012, Missouri and Utah passed their own laws, while Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska had bills that died in committee or were tabled for a later date.

This past year has seen an onslaught of legislation being proposed at the state level. Arkansas passed a farm protection bill in April and seven other states have yet to vote on their proposals.

In May, ag-gag bills came into the national discussion after Bill Haslam, the governor of Tennessee, vetoed a bill on the advice of state Attorney General Bob Chopper because of constitutional issues involving the First Amendment. Halsam related, "There are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases." The governor was also under pressure from animal-rights groups and celebrities like Carrie Underwood, to veto the bill, and ultimately their request was met.

Besides Tennessee"s vetoed bill, there were bills in California, New Hampshire and New Mexico that did not make it to the Legislature in 2013.

Protecting ag or silencing activists?

Readers comment

The following comments came from online stories published on dealing with farm protection bills:

Margie in Nevada says, "The reason the video may be held for a period of time is to establish a long-term pattern of abuse. A onetime event will not be investigated by any agency or governmental department. Only when there is a pattern will investigations happen. The only reason state legislatures are moving to suppress the videos is to suppress the evidence of systemic abuse."

Amanda in North Carolina stated, "This bill would help animals get help faster, instead of using someone"s mistake to hurt so many people and animals. The majority of farmers are doing the right thing, and it"s time they got credit for it."

Emma in Missouri related, "If farmers in general are acting properly, they have nothing to fear. Recent HSUS footage at a hog facility showed identifiable employees hitting, dragging and otherwise abusing livestock. Those people should be prosecuted. That footage wasn"t faked.

Let"s be real: the 24-hour limit makes it difficult to establish a pattern of abuse. My question is why the "good farmers" apparently don"t want the "bad farmers" prosecuted? Why do they want their reputation sullied?"

Tammy in Michigan said, "As a dairy farmer I do not want people coming onto my property and recording without permission, but I do not believe any animal should be allowed to be abused. This is a very fine line we are on. I personally do not feel a recession is the right time to be putting extra expense to the food budget of the poor when it is the rich who seem to have the problem with where and how their food is produced."



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