The latest weapon in the war between cost reduction and animal welfare: So-called ag-gag laws, which criminalize whistleblower investigations of animal cruelty. These "see no evil" measures protect agricultural enterprises at the expense of workers and consumers. Although these investigations enjoy the support of 71% of Americans, they mean huge costs for big ag. That's why laws that turn whistleblowers into felons have been introduced in eight states already, and why this destructive legislative agenda is likely to arrive in Colorado by 2015.
In a landmark 2008 case, a judgement totaling nearly half a billion dollars was entered against a meat supplier caught on film torturing "downer" cattle to get them to rise and walk to their deaths. Among other horrific abuses, workers were videotaped ramming collapsed cattle with a forklift. Downer cattle can't be sold for human consumption because they may risk transmitting Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, aka "Mad Cow Disease."
Needless to say, industrial agriculture isn't eager to accept up to $500,000,000 in possible liability, on top of ever-increasing operating costs. The American public consistently demands more, cheaper animal products, to the tune of 200 million additional pounds of meat year-over-year. Instead of establishing procedures to avoid animal abuse and the associated food safety risks, agribusiness has elected to push legislation that protects abusive businesses and hurts workers. Let's take a look:
Already on the See No Evil Ban-Wagon: North Dakota, Kansas, and Montana have been safe havens for agribusiness since the 1990s, when all three made it a misdemeanor offense to enter a facility closed to the public and take photographs or audio/video recordings.
Jumping on the Ban-Wagon: Utah, Iowa, and Missouri, which passed ag-gag laws last year. (Missouri's law is a much weaker compromise bill, whereas Utah and Iowa enacted full-blown ag-gag legislation making it a crime for workers to record animal abuse.) ABC News notes that Iowa's ag-gag law was passed shortly after ABC aired an undercover video depicting abuse of chickens at an Iowa egg factory.
Considering Getting Aboard:
- New Hampshire, where HB 110 would require people who record animal cruelty to submit such recordings or photographs to law enforcement within 24 hours of recording. Although on the surface this mimics beneficial "mandatory reporting" laws that protect children, the legislation doesn't actually require the reporting of animal cruelty witnessed by workers–it only places a burden on the workers who are investigating cruelty by photographing or recording it, subjecting them to criminal penalties if they don't turn over their materials within 24 hours of creation. This prevents ongoing investigations by forcibly outing undercover workers within 24 hours of their first recording/photograph.
- Wyoming, where HB0126 cuts to the chase by criminalizing undercover investigation of agribusiness, with penalties of up to six months of imprisonment for any worker who takes clandestine photos or recordings after accepting a job with the intention of recording an image or sound from the operation. The law also institutes mandatory reporting by workers of animal cruelty, but merely requires that they report to the farm manager/owner. Although reporters would be granted immunity from civil liability, nothing prevents the manager from firing workers for reporting cruelty as required under the law.
- Nebraska, where LB 204 establishes increasingly severe penalties for interfering with an agricultural operation in a way that results in monetary damages. Undercover investigators whose work results in losses of over $10,000 for an agribusiness would be guilty of a class IV felony. In addition to agriculture, this legislation specifically protects furriers, zoos, and lawful competitive events involving animals. There's also a 24-hour reporting burden included.
- Arkansas, where SB13 makes it illegal for anyone other than a law enforcement officer to investigate animal cruelty, and SB14 makes unlawful any undercover recording of images, audio, or video at a livestock/poultry operation.
- Indiana, where SB 373 criminalizes any photography or recording of an agricultural or industrial operation without the written consent of the owner (yes, that means you, too, hobby photographers).Additionally, SB 391 repeats some of SB 373 while adding a requirement that the state maintain a registry of people convicted of previous offenses against agricultural businesses.
Coming Soon to Colorado?
Colorado is home to more than 2.6 million head of cattle. With gross farm income close to $5 billion, farming remains Colorado's single largest industry. Colorado's independent streak and record of killing animal abuse friendly legislation likely kept us off the list of test states this year and last year, but if "see no evil" ag-gag bills succeed elsewhere in 2013, they'll get here by 2015 at the latest. In the unlikely event that Republicans retake the Colorado House or Senate in 2014, farmer-legislators like Representative Sonnenberg can be relied upon to introduce ag-gag bills in Colorado and push for their passage.
Who will actually be writing these putative bills? I'd bet an Elway's steak dinner on the "Center for Consumer Freedom" as a major player. The brainchild of wealthy lobbyist Richard Berman, the CCF dedicates itself to "exposing" organic food advocates, the HSUS, and various other entities whose actions are deemed undesirable by Berman and the food-and-beverage industry. Activists turn Berman's own tactics against him on BermanExposed.org, which ties together Berman's 20+ astroturfing projects, with goals like destroying unions; attacking the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and convincing consumers that high-fructose corn syrup isn't linked to obesity.
If and when ag-gag lobbyists bring their see no evil agenda to Colorado, count on power players like Berman to spend heavily on convincing legislators that budget-conscious omnivores want to be protected from "eco-terrorism" and the like. In reality, according to ASPCA research, 94% of Americans agreed that farm animals raised for food deserve to be free of cruelty and abuse. Even right-wing Congressional candidate Tisha Casida shares Coloradans' concerns about food safety and sustainability. Her undeniably conservative food safety agenda focuses on protecting small farmers and ranchers who provide innovative products, rather than on handouts to the agriculture megabusinesses who push those small farmers out of the market.
Sensible conservatives and progressives agree that industrialized agriculture doesn't need special protection from whistleblowers, especially when that protection would hide food safety hazards. Turning whistleblowers into felons serves exactly one demographic, and that's not "Colorado consumers." Every handout to factory farms takes money out of the pockets of sustainable local farmers who can't compete on price with agribusinesses willing to practice organized cruelty against both their human workers and their living "products."
Got a lead on ag-gag laws in Colorado? Email me.