Texas-Sized Rhetoric On Ag-Gag

In the debate over the ag-gag bills the meat industry's been peddling in state legislatures nationwide, strong words abound. Yet some of the strongest were recently published in a syndicated column that didn't pull any punches.

"The only reason the public knows about chickens being stomped to death and pregnant sows being driven insane because they're caged so tightly they can't even turn around," the author proclaims, "is that courageous whistleblowers have secretly recorded videos of the intolerable violence..."

Those aren't the words of a strident animal activist bent on making splashy headlines. Rather, they're the carefully-chosen words of Texas' former agriculture commissioner.

Jim Hightower served as the Lone Star State's top ag official for nearly a decade. And since his time in office, Hightower's witnessed an animal agribusinesses industry that's increasingly intent on attacking anyone who questions its practices.

Hightower's words may seem to some as extreme, yet what's truly extreme is just how inhumane the factory farming system that produces nearly all of our meat, eggs and dairy has become.

It's now the norm in the egg industry, for example, to lock birds in cages that are so cramped they can't even spread their wings -- ever. Meanwhile, chickens in the meat industry have been genetically selected to grow so huge they can barely walk and endure chronic pain. And pigs and cattle are routinely pumped full of so many drug cocktails they'd make a pharmacist blush.

When one realizes that inhumanity toward farm animals is the norm, not the exception, in animal agriculture today, it becomes clearer just why there's such fervor in the meat industry to pass ag-gag laws. This is an industry that's desperate to keep Americans in the dark about its routine cruelty. As the American Meat Institute made clear in this 2002 memo sent to two trade associations that were working to address animal welfare concerns: "We believe that any discussion of inadequacies throughout the production chain ultimately undermines consumer confidence in the retail meat and poultry case."

That's right: the industry doesn't want to stop animal abuse, but rather wants to avoid any discussion about it whatsoever. So it's no surprise that it's that same industry now trying to cover abuse up by criminalizing documentation of the abuse. And while most ag-gag bills have earned the fate they deserve and been laid to legislative rest, some big ag states, like Utah and Iowa, now have such whistleblower suppression laws on the books, enabling bad practices to remain hidden from public view.

Things have certainly changed a lot since Hightower was Texas' commissioner of agriculture. After all, it was just over a year ago that Texas' then-agriculture commissioner Todd Staples resigned in shame merely days after nationally embarrassing himself by attacking Texas schools for implementing Meatless Mondays.

We may be unlikely to see someone as bluntly straight-talking as Hightower assume such an office in the near future. At the same time, one would hope that the very industry ag commissioners are intended to oversee will heed Hightower's warning and instead of trying to crack down on whistleblowers, begin to phase out its most extreme and inhumane practices.