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January 18, 2012

What Are Agribusiness Groups Trying to Hide with ‘Ag-Gag’ Bills?

A number of state legislatures have opened their 2012 sessions, and others are gearing up. We are sure to see a raft of pro-animal legislation introduced by lawmakers, but also measures to open up new opportunities for animal cruelty and abuse, to conceal what’s going on in certain industries, and to maintain the status quo.

Animal science professor Peter Cheeke writes in an agricultural textbook, “One of the best things modern animal agriculture has going for it is that most people...haven't a clue how animals are raised...For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better."

Pigs in gestation crates
The HSUS
An HSUS undercover investigation in 2010.

But a number of exposés from news-gathering organizations and from animal protection groups like The HSUS have thrown back the curtain on extreme confinement methods and inhumane handling and slaughter practices. One of the most notable was surely our investigation into the Hallmark Westland plant and the abuse of downed animals in California, which led to cruelty convictions, Congressional hearings, a shut-down of the plant, and the largest meat recall in U.S. history. This slaughter plant was the number-two supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.

In the wake of these scandals, the response from certain segments of industry has not been reform and transparency, but concerted efforts to turn the curtain into a concrete wall―barring anyone not part of the industry from seeing what’s going on.

So far this year, big ag interests are actively pushing for the enactment of bills in Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New York to ban undercover anti-cruelty investigations on factory farms.

These so-called “ag-gag” bills range from banning taking a photo or video of a factory farm without permission, to even banning possession and distribution of such photos or videos. Some of the bills seek to accomplish the same goal by essentially making it a crime for an undercover investigator to gain employment at a factory farm. Some of the bills go so far that they would prevent whistleblowers from exposing illegal activities at a factory farm, even financial embezzlement, sexual harassment, or violations of worker safety laws. It's an attack on the First Amendment of the worst kind.

As The HSUS’s Paul Shapiro told CNN viewers, it’s understandable that the meat industry would want to pass these bills and conceal its practices from Americans. After all, poll after poll shows that Americans don’t want animals confined in tiny cages where they can barely move an inch their whole lives. Yet this extreme confinement is regrettably a standard practice for millions of farm animals in our country.

Animal agriculture has become more consolidated and more industrialized over the past few decades, and more people than ever are removed from the daily experiences of animals. There’s a widespread assumption in the American public that someone’s looking out for the creatures on the farm. 

When people learn of systemic abuses, however, they want change.

Some industry organizations are changing, such as the United Egg Producers, which is joining with The HSUS in an effort to transition the egg industry away from barren battery cages. Other state-based groups have also driven reform in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and other states.

These ag-gag bills take our nation in the wrong direction. They should be defeated. And instead, we should be working on improving conditions for farm animals and letting sunshine flow into food production facilities across the country.

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