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April 14, 2011

'Ag Gag' Laws Would Punish Whistleblowers, Protect Animal Abusers

Today, A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times reports on the latest efforts by agribusiness interests and their legislative allies to keep the public in the dark about the realities of factory farming. I wrote last week about the series of bills, introduced in Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota, to make it a crime to take pictures or video of animals on farms.

Undercover investigations of the meat industry have a long and important history in the United States.

Iowa egg factory farm investigation in 2010
The HSUS
Hens in small, filthy cages at an Iowa egg factory farm,
documented by a 2010 HSUS investigation.

As Sulzberger writes: “The use of undercover investigations to expose abuse in agriculture dates back more than a century. The journalist Upton Sinclair spent weeks working in meatpacking plants while researching his book ‘The Jungle,’ and his graphic descriptions of unsanitary conditions prompted federal regulation of the industry.”

Sinclair's own investigations led directly to the enactment of the country's first federal slaughterhouse regulations, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, in 1906.

Unfortunately, more than a century later, the need for such investigations has only increased.

In The Bond—which has already hit the New York Times best-seller list at #11—I recount the story of one of our brave undercover investigators who got a job at a slaughter plant in southern California in 2007 that specialized in slaughtering spent dairy cows. He documented downer cows wallowing in manure, and then being tormented to get them into the slaughter plant. His dedicated work led to the biggest meat recall in American history—143 million pounds, with most of it having been sent to schools to feed children in all 50 states.

Under the laws proposed in Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota, our undercover investigator would have been prosecuted for documenting cruel and unsafe practices. And the animal abusers would have somehow been made the victims.

Does agribusiness really want to go this far to cloak what’s going on at some facilities? If the industry's own self-imposed standards of care are sufficient, then one man or woman with a video camera poses no threat.

This legislation in Iowa was prompted in large part by two undercover investigations that HSUS conducted last year at large egg factory farms. Ironically, it was in that same state where a separate facility was the site of the largest egg recall in American history—where 550 million eggs were recalled after a deadly Salmonella outbreak.

Sadly, it seems that every HSUS investigation turns up animal care problems, which are all too often directly related to serious food safety risks as well. State lawmakers should stand up for the public interest and not the special interests, especially when it concerns the food we eat. 

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