Law & the Courts

What Is the Meat Industry Trying to Hide?

(Getty Images)
“Ag-gag” bills seek to criminalize whistleblowers who are exposing grotesque animal abuse.

In recent years, whistleblowing exposés have repeatedly documented inhumane treatment of animals and the food-safety problems inside the farms and slaughter plants that produce nearly all of our nation’s meat, eggs, and dairy products.

The Humane Society of the United States and other like-minded groups are conducting investigations that help shine a bright light on agribusiness practices such as confining animals in cages so tiny that for most of their lives they can’t even turn around. The results of these investigations speak for themselves. Such videos have led to meat recalls, slaughter-plant shutdowns, criminal convictions, congressional hearings, and new federal policies.

The meat industry’s response to these exposés should be a stepped-up effort to prevent these abuses. Sadly, the industry has instead tried to clamp down on the exposés themselves so that the American people will never find out about them.

In dozens of states, agribusiness lobbyists have backed bills to criminalize not the abuses being documented but rather the documentation of the abuses. Nearly all of these “ag-gag” bills have been defeated in state legislatures, but that doesn’t seem to dampen the meat industry’s enthusiasm for them. So far this year, ag-gag attempts in Kentucky, Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington have been defeated; but lawmakers in Wisconsin and North Carolina are considering such legislation now.

Some states have even passed this type of law to silence whistleblowers. For example, it’s now a crime in Utah and Idaho to take a photo of someone abusing an animal in a slaughter plant. In Iowa, if an agribusiness employer asks a job applicant whether he is a member of an animal-welfare charity, and the applicant answers “no” while he does in fact belong to such a group, the employer can press charges that result in the job applicant’s being sent to jail. The newest iteration of these proposed whistleblower-suppression bills requires anyone documenting inhumane treatment of farm animals to “out” himself, usually to the Department of Agriculture or the police, nearly immediately and turn over all his evidence before any pattern of abuse can be established.

Such efforts at secrecy and censorship can only make us wonder just what our nation’s animal agribusinesses are trying to hide. While the meat trade groups generally back these ag-gag bills, the response from the media has been less enthusiastic. Tennessee’s Daily News Journal editorial board called an ag-gag bill that Governor Bill Haslam vetoed “ridiculous, immature, and idiotic.” Though at the other end of the political spectrum, the San Francisco Chronicle’s editors voiced similar criticism of ag-gag, referring to California’s ag-gag bill as “the worst PR gaffe since New Coke.” Animal-welfare scientist and meat-industry adviser Temple Grandin also says that these bills are “the stupidest thing that ag ever did.”

Why are they so ill-conceived? First, they’re clearly irresponsible public policy. Americans deserve to know where their food comes from and exactly how it is produced. But a second problem is that these ag-gag bills have become a public-relations nightmare for animal agriculture. The National Pork Producers Council noted: “We did a study of coverage of ‘ag-gag’ laws that found that 99 percent of the stories about it were negative.”

You know that an industry has a lot to hide when it wants to make it a crime to document what it’s doing. The proper response from lawmakers to the pervasive cruelty endured by farm animals isn’t to crack down on the whistleblowers. Rather, lawmakers should crack down on that cruelty by requiring better treatment of farm animals. Considering how much we take from them, a modest amount of basic decency is the very least we owe these animals.

— Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm-animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/pshapiro.

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