The images were shocking: workers at an Idaho dairy farm viciously beating cows with canes, jumping on their backs as they moaned in distress, kicking them in the face, and even dragging sick and injured animals across concrete flooring with chains attached to their necks.
It was animal cruelty, plain and simple. The images, captured on hidden camera by an investigator working with our organization, Mercy for Animals, led Idaho law enforcement to file criminal animal cruelty charges against multiple workers and a manager at Wendell-based Bettencourt Dairies.
But what's perhaps more shocking than the footage is the response from the state's dairy industry. Rather than praise the brave whistleblower who reported and exposed the heinous crimes, Idaho's dairy industry is now aiming to shoot the messenger by lobbying for Senate Bill 1337 (S 1337), an "ag-gag" bill that would make it a crime to film inside its facilities.
S 1337 would make it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to simply photograph or videotape abusive, unsanitary or otherwise unethical activity on a farm. Even employees and journalists who take photos or video to document misconduct on farms -- whether it's mistreatment of animals, food safety hazards, worker safety violations, sexual harassment, financial embezzlement, or environmental crimes -- could face criminal prosecution if the bill is passed.
Idaho's dairy industry needs more transparency, not less. Consumers have a right to see how their food is produced so they can make informed decisions. Sadly, too many animals on factory farms suffer out of sight and out of mind because there is no governmental body charged with overseeing their welfare. Furthermore, employees who witness abuse are often too fearful of violent retaliation or losing their jobs to report it.
In this broken system, the job of documenting and enforcing Idaho's animal cruelty laws is often left to concerned citizens, journalists, and investigators with nonprofit charities. Given the abysmal state of affairs, Idaho's dairy industry should be pressing for stronger animal protection laws, more oversight, and greater transparency. Its push for an "ag-gag" bill is misdirected, dangerous, and a slap in the face of consumers statewide.
"Ag-gag" bills like Idaho's not only effectively sweep evidence of animal cruelty under the rug but pose serious threats to freedom of speech and the press. This has led the ACLU and others to oppose such bills and label them unconstitutional.
Idaho's families deserve a safe food supply, but S 1337 places it at risk. Investigations by animal protection charities bring to light not only animal cruelty but serious public health dangers. In fact, the largest meat recall in U.S. history -- over 143 million pounds -- resulted from such an investigation. The undercover video revealed cows too sick or injured to even walk, wallowing in their own feces, exhibiting signs of potential "mad cow" disease or other infections. Yet they were viciously kicked, shocked, and pushed with forklifts onto the kill floor. Meat from these animals turned up on children's plates through the National School Lunch Program, threatening their health and lives. Had an "ag-gag" law been in place at the time, this investigation would never have been conducted, and this illegal and dangerous behavior would likely continue to this day.
Let's hope that Idaho's elected officials act in their citizens' best interests rather than on corporate interests and reject S 1337.
This blog post originally appeared in Magic Valley Times-News.