Animal welfare activists called for criminal charges to be filed this week against eight employees of a Canadian company after an undercover video revealed graphic animal abuse at a dairy in British Columbia.
A hidden-camera investigation conducted by Mercy for Animals Canada, allegedly showed workers kicking and punching the animals, and beating them with metal objects.
Virtually no one condones such behavior, but the issue of workers gaining access to livestock operations under false pretenses, and gathering video covertly has proven to be no less contentious.
David Miller examined a controversial law in Iowa designed to keep the livestock producers themselves from being victimized. And we caution: the following segment contains video you may find disturbing.
The hidden camera and concealed microphone have long been tools of television funnymen, security-minded homeowners and clandestine operatives in foreign lands.
They’re also valuable tools for undercover activists seeking to shine the light of day on illicit activities in otherwise unseen locations. Or, some say, to stage an event to give the appearance of wrongdoing when, in actuality, no crime is being committed.
In few places has this argument drawn more attention than the legal and media battlegrounds populated by animal rights activists and U.S. livestock producers.
Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, Weise Brothers Farms in Wisconsin, Tyson Pork Group in Oklahoma and Pipestone Systems in Minnesota are a few of the animal processors activists have targeted in the past year.
The attention-grabbing, graphic undercover videos produce by activists are distributed through traditional and social media, sometimes to devastating effect to the industry.
Emily Meredith is a spokesperson for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit organization based in Washington, which champions causes dear to livestock and poultry producers.
Emily Meredith, Animal Agriculture Alliance: “These activist groups use these videos for fund raising. They use the videos to advance their agenda to end animal agriculture. So the reason this legislation is so upsetting to them is because it is going to curb them from doing what they want to do and from using this footage for their agenda. To advance their disingenuous agenda.”
In 2002, model legislation was introduced by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Known as ALEC, the council is made up of state legislators and business executives that craft policy to run at the state level.
Known as “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” the bill would make it a crime to gather film or videotape surreptitiously at livestock production facilities.
Lawmakers supporting the legislation began introducing versions of the “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” in several states. And by 2011, the legislation had drawn the attention of New York Times food columnist, Mark Bittman, who coined the term “Ag Gag.”
Around that same time, supporters of “Ag Gag” laws were making headway in several states across the country. Iowa passed the first one, followed by states like Utah, South Carolina and Idaho.
Sen. Joe Seng, D - Davenport, Iowa: I call it the Ag protection bill. It's been called the "Ag Gag" bill or "Ag Terrorism” bill, I think Ag protection is the main focus of the bill. I really think it's an attempt to protect agriculture but not have any subversive acts by groups trying to bring down an industry actually of their own making within that facility."
However, what state legislators have seen as a way to protect their constituents has been characterized as governmental overreach.
Paul Shapiro is Vice President of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States: "Americans deserve to know the truth about where their food is coming from and how it's produced. When those in the industry argue for "Ag Gag" laws, want to suppress whistle blowers, it becomes even clearer just how desperate this Indus is to hide its standard practices from the American people."
These are arguments repeated in Legislatures across the country.
Jared Goodman is the director of Animal Law at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Sworn enemy of most farmers and ranchers, PETA is part of a coalition of groups which filed a federal lawsuit against Ag Gag laws in Utah and Idaho.
Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law, PETA: “The public has the right to know what's going on behind closed doors at these factory farms. At the very least they should be able to make an informed decision given all the information on what they’d like to spend their money on. And we're confident, and we believe this is why the industry is so opposed to undercover investigations. That once people learn of all the inherent abuse, that they're going to decide not to buy these products anymore. "
The dispute evokes memories of Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” which documented sanitary shortcomings in the American meatpacking industry at the dawn of the 20th Century.
Sinclair’s muckraking literary work exposed many Americans to deplorable working conditions in the Chicago stockyards, and prompted Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the precursor to the modern-day Food and Drug Administration.
But Meredith, of the Animal Agricultural Alliance, says such comparisons romanticize a political ideology that's harming a vital part of the agriculture industry.
Emily Meredith, Animal Agriculture Alliance: “Most of the farmers that I know are members of ours, they want consumers to come and learn and embrace the farm. They want consumers to understand what they're doing on the farm. How they're raising animals. Because they're proud of what they do. The most crucial part of oversight that is already in place is that these animals are a farmers and ranchers bottom line. Not only are they going to insure that those animals are treated properly, they’re going to insure they're producing the safest and most wholesome product they can. Because that's how they keep their business in operation. That's how they sustain their business from year to year and pass that on from generation to generation.”
Goodman, on the other hand, says the industry should welcome cameras, not ban them. Otherwise, it looks like the Industry is hiding something.
And as for political ideology, he says, that’s beside the point.
Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law, PETA: “There could be various motives for conducting undercover investigations. This isn't just about animal rights and cruelty to animals on factory farms. It prevents anyone from exposing cruelty to animals, poor working conditions and food safety issues.”
Still, some states have been able avoid legal challenges -- at least so far -- because local laws don’t directly challenge the ability of people to report what occurs on farming facilities.
Instead, those states ramp-up punishments for people who lie on farm employment applications
This was the route taken in Iowa, the nation’s top hog-producing state. Law makers rejected early versions of Iowa's "Ag Gag" proposal because they thought they were overreaching and stifled free speech.
Goodman says the practical affect is similar but it’s more difficult to put up a Constitutional Challenge.
While Ag Gag laws in other states such as Utah and Idaho are being challenged Iowa’s Ag Gag law, thus far, has not faced any legal opposition. Experts, however, say it’s only a matter of time before the courts decide once and for all -- if there is any room for undercover cameras down on the farm.
For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.