Alarmed by damaging footage of animal abuse, agriculture leaders in a number of states have advanced so-called “ag gag” laws that make it illegal to take undercover photographs or videotape on farms or at livestock facilities.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Alarmed by damaging footage of animal abuse, agriculture leaders in a number of states have advanced so-called “ag gag” laws that make it illegal to take undercover photographs or videotape on farms or at livestock facilities.
That approach always rubbed California rancher Jeff Fowle the wrong way.
A former Colorado State University animal science student and now a prominent ag advocate and blogger, he felt the move contradicted the industry’s claims of transparency and trustworthiness. So he approached the California Cattlemen’s Association about pushing a different version of the legislation.
“It’s the anti-ag gag bill, presented by agriculture,” summarized Fowle, while speaking to members of the Ag Relations Council at their annual meeting this spring.
The legislation now being considered in the California state assembly would require any evidence of animal abuse to be reported within 48 hours.
“Unlike bills in some other states, AB343 protects the right to video and photograph, protects the worker from reporting observed abuse, promotes cooperation with local law enforcement and puts the welfare of the animals above the bottom line and above the next fundraising campaign,” Fowle wrote on his blog, CommonSenseAgriculture.com. “AB343 combines common sense with moral fortitude. It requires that animal abuse is reported in a timely manner, in order to minimize suffering, allow for a proper investigation and see that appropriate charges are brought against the offender.”
Around the country, the emphasis of ag gag law has changed since just last year, when Iowa became the first state to pass stiff new regulations aimed at stifling undercover investigations. Similar efforts have since stalled out in several other states including Arkansas, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Opponents say it criminalizes whistle blowing and allows livestock operations to cover up abuse.
On the flip side, animal welfare groups have been faulted for waiting weeks or even months to release incriminating video footage while the abuse continues.
Legislation that requires undercover workers to report any abuse immediately is aimed at addressing both of those complaints.
Publicly at least, the livestock industry is putting more emphasis on responding quickly and proactively to alleged abuse.
The pork and dairy industries recently announced a collaboration with the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit aimed at building consumer trust and confidence in the modern food system, to launch the “See It? Stop It!” initiative which encourages immediate reporting of any animal mishandling.
Roy Lee Lindsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council, said his members were just beginning to learn about the program but he expected them to respond favorably. Oklahoma-based Seaboard Farms and Prestage Farms were the target of undercover investigations last year.
“It’s a great way to raise awareness with employees and farm owners that we can’t afford to have bad actors in this industry,” Lindsey said while working at a pork promotion booth during Oklahoma Ag Day at the Capitol.
A growing perception by the public that modern hog facilities are mysterious, secretive places hostile to outsiders isn’t accurate, he added.
“We’ve never closed our facilities to keep people from seeing what we are doing, it’s for bio-security reasons,” he said, adding that even feed deliveries are carefully choreographed to reduce the risk of disease infection.
“This new initiative goes hand-in-hand with what we are already doing. It’s not a stand-alone program, it’s an extension of what we’ve taught for years in our Pork Quality Assurance programs,” he said.
Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity, said the new campaign would help producers discuss a difficult subject.
“This just really gives empowerment to both employers and employees to discuss it before a potential incidence occurs,” he said when reached by phone from Colorado where he was speaking at several CSU events. “It’s another tool that farms today can use to enhance awareness and improve their management.”
Surreptitious videos concern agriculturalists, because many common animal care practices can be misunderstood or taken out of context by the non-farm public. Farmers and ranchers fear they are losing their right to remain innocent until proven guilty when videos are selectively filmed, edited and potentially sensationalized.
To counter that problem, the Center for Food Integrity organized a panel of independent experts who remain on standby to offer analysis if an incriminating video surfaces. Well-known figures like CSU’s Temple Grandin are among the scientists, veterinarians and ethicists contributing their expertise.
It’s not a perfect solution, however.
“Our concern is that the media cycle is fairly short so reviews have to be done rapidly and immediately released,” Fleck said. “The purpose is to provide context, and hopefully it’s helpful to the public.”
Fleck is among dozens of speakers who will appear at the Animal Ag Alliance annual stakeholders summit May 1-2 in Arlington, Va. The group prefers to use the term “farmer protection laws” when referring to ag gag legislation. The meeting’s agenda is devoted to the topic of undercover activists and what the industry has learned in the five years since the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company of Chino, Calif., was exposed for abusing lame dairy cows, leading to the largest ground beef recall in history.
Meanwhile, the controversy over how to handle undercover taping continues to make headlines.
The New York Times devoted part of Sunday’s front page to the topic on April 7. In the article, animal advocates admitted the new laws had a chilling effect on their activities. They also argued that prompt reporting measures prevent them from gathering enough evidence to demonstrate ongoing and deliberate patterns of abuse.