By Aly Miller
Disclaimer: This piece contains graphic descriptions of animal abuse, collected by investigators working undercover as farm workers who have used their videos to criminalize abusive animal owners.
Originally published in Food Politic.
America's history of undercover investigative journalism, most notably Upton Sinclair's 1906 The Jungle, which exposed the unsanitary conditions of food processing sites, and Elizabeth Jane Cochran's undercover investigation of the conditions in insane asylums, are famous for changing public opinion of our food and health systems, and instigating new laws and systems.
A new set of laws -- dubbed Ag-Gag bills in the media -- prevent undercover investigators from working on factory farms with intention of finding and reporting illegal patterns of behavior, like animal abuse. In the states where they've been passed, these laws criminalize people trying to unmask the facilities for what they are rather than the companies who made them that way.
Last Wednesday, a California state lawmaker withdrew AB 343, the nation's fourteenth proposed Ag-Gag bill in response to overwhelming public disapproval. While representatives in California, New York, and Minnesota repealed the bills shortly after introducing them, Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont are still considering them. The nation's first Ag-Gag laws were passed in Kansas, Montana, and Missouri in 1990-1, aimed at criminalizing photographers and videographers with intent to defame the facility. In all, seven states have enacted Ag-Gag laws, six have pending laws, and three have withdrawn.
One reason behind the emerging focus on farm-reporting at the state-level is the introduction of the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," a federal terrorism law drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of corporate representatives and an increasing number of state representatives (ALEC). The corporations work with ALEC to draft "model legislation" which are introduced in states across the country. As journalist and author, Will Potter, puts it, ALEC's bill is a "'wish list' of legislative language from which state lawmakers can pick and choose to satisfy their constituents." The 12 Ag-Gag bills introduced in 2012 and 2013 (all but Kansas and Montana) are based on the ALEC model, whose supporters include Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, and associations that represent pork, dairy, cattle, poultry producers and farmers of corn and soybeans.
Sustainable farm advocates, animal rights activists, and organizations like the AFL-CIO, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Teamsters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Press Photographers Association voice strong opposition to the way the bill threatens food safety, burdens workers and offends the First Amendment.
One of the most crucial investigations led to the largest meat recall in history. Videos obtained by a farm worker at the Hallmark slaughter plant in Chino, California, expose workers repeatedly kicking and jabbing downed cows, shocking them, and torturing them with a hose and water to get them to walk to slaughter. Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned authority on livestock treatment, described these images as "one of the worst animal abuse videos I have ever viewed." The recalled beef was distributed by Westland Meat Co, a major distributor of beef to the USDA's National School Lunch Program.
In another case, in Hart, Texas's E6 Cattle Company, an undercover investigator documented the bludgeoning of calves heads with pickaxes and hammers, calves thrown alive onto dead piles, ill and dying calves denied medical care, and calves and cows confined in stalls, standing deep in manure and urine buildup.
The owner of the E6 Cattle Company was sentenced one-year probation, and charged $4,000 in fines. Five of his former employees were sentenced for jail time. Were an Ag-Gag bill enacted in Texas at that time, the footage would likely be dismissed by the court, and the videographer would have also been facing jail time and a 500-dollar fine.
In most cases, their videos are the only means of documenting the kind of evidence needed to press criminal charges on livestock facility owners and employees.
Proponents of the bill range from individual farmers and ranchers to national organizations that represent beef, poultry, pork and dairy producers. Emily Meredith, communications director of the Animal Agricultural Alliance, the nation's largest coalition of farmers, vets, processing facilities, and ranchers, explained in a recent debate, that, "these videos damage [the farmers'] reputations...And many of these videos have found no legitimate instances of abuse, but rather use manipulated footage.They show false narrative of the images....meant to shock and awe consumers."
The Ag-Gag laws, and Meredith's charges of "false narrative" raise the question: Is it up to the consumer, the farmer, or the state to determine what constitutes animal cruelty?
State-level animal protection laws, across the board, are inadequate and full of loopholes. Each state has slightly different definitions of "animals." Most states, like Iowa, for example, exclude livestock from their definitions of "animal," making chickens and cows subject to what farmers consider "normal animal husbandry practice." In Idaho, for example, the bashing of cows' heads is an acceptable way of prodding cows to move forward. Hanging crippled sows is a legal way to kill a pig in Ohio.
The bottom line is that abuse is inherent in the making of the factory farm, and it's the publics' right to see it, and decide if they can stomach the level at which it's happening.
Meredith continues, "If you truly care about animal welfare, you're not going to wait even a minute to report animal abuse. You're going to see it, you're going to stop it, and you're going to say something."
Her argument defends another common provision in the Ag-Gag laws, which states that any footage of illegal treatment of animals must be handed to the authorities within 24 hours; supportive at first glance, but disingenuous to the core.
The 24-hour stipulation solicits the reporting of one-time offenses, but costs workers their anonymity, and the opportunity to document repeated, systematic acts of animal cruelty -- the kind of evidence required for criminal cases. For guilty facility owners and workers, it could mean the difference between a slap on the wrist for a one-time incident, and jail time. It puts an end to intense, undercover investigations into our food system; footage with the potential to influence a grocery list, instigate meat recalls, and potentially save human lives. Footage with the potential to document working environments and human rights violations. Footage that could potentially inspire change.
An experienced undercover reporter recently revealed to Democracy Now, explains "if you just show illegal activity from one individual, you can't then show who else is involved in that illegal activity. And when one person is busted...it's not going to stop other people from breaking the law."
Taken together, the ban on reporting, and the 24-hour stipulation places unrealistic burdens on the worker to report abuse and seek an attorney within 24 hours; workers who already endure low pay, unhealthy working conditions and barriers to citizenship.
Being an undercover reporter in the food system is not an easy job. It takes a certain kind of person who is both passionate about animal rights and can witness the violent treatment of animals; a person who can endure isolation and hardship. In targeting this brand of farm worker, recent legislation emphasizes the factory farm's overwhelming fear of public opinion. Big Ag's attempts to hide, however, are not going unnoticed by First Amendment supporters, journalists and the increasingly media-savvy and food-conscious public, who have been fighting for food sovereignty, the right to define their own food systems for decades.